The Six Wives of Henry VIII

I don’t always read long books, but when I do, it’s because I know the author’s talent will help me push through my short attention span. Once again, Antonia Fraser doesn’t fail to deliver a book that’s serious yet engaging. In a world where history and politics are often seen as boring and dry, the quality of the writing here is the real star. As much as I love history, politics is something that I always fail to grasp, and as you can imagine it makes this particular intellectual pursuit somewhat challenging. Fraser’s work is perfect for a person like me. I first found this while reading Marie Antoinette: The Journey. While politics must of course necessarily come into play, her focus is rather more on the characters she discusses. She really has a knack for bringing out the personalities of her subjects in a way that almost makes you feel as though you’ve met them before. In fact I’ve been known to defend Marie Antoinette as though she were a close friend of mine. You can really sense the despair and frustration of Catherine of Aragon as she fights to hold on to her rightful place as queen, and the arrogance and tactless ignorance of Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour is an angel, Anna of Cleves is pitifully naive – or is she? Katherine Howard is a trickster, and Catherine Parr is motherly and wise.

But those are just caricatures. All personalities here are given a fair look. Unsympathetic ones are given credit where credit is due, and sympathetic ones are not shown to be without their faults. The motives of Henry VIII himself are given a well-rounded unbiased look that really lets us get a glimpse into his head. Considering these people all lived nearly 500 years ago, this is an impressive feat. Fraser really understands her subjects like no other author I’ve read. This is why I’ll continue to read her work, and why she’s a favorite author of mine despite me almost exclusively choosing my reading material based on subject matter alone. One day I might even read her 1200+ page Weaker Vessel, but not soon. That would really be pushing it.

Given that there are essentially 7 biographies packed into this book, those of the six wives and Henry VIII himself, it really can’t be said to be too long at all. Other reviews tend towards the opinion that she often strays from her subject matter into superfluous back-stories, but at least compared to other books I’ve read I didn’t actually find this to be the case. There were a few, but all more or less related back to the core narrative. Details about distant relatives, in terms of relation or geography, always supported the political side of the story at the very least. The pacing is also appropriate. More pages are given to the wives who were married to Henry VIII the longest, fewer to wives who’s time on stage is more brief. The whole thing just makes sense, both in terms of composition and in that this won’t be over the heads of readers new to the subject matter. And when there’s just so much to read out there, I’d rather read one book about these people than seven. Wouldn’t you?

Other recommended reads: The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, Tales from the Tower of London

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Under the Black Flag

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I’m going to be blunt here, I hated this. I know that many readers will love it, but there were certain elements here that really annoyed me, and distracted from the fact that it’s detailed and well-researched.

For the most part I just plain found it very boring. This is for a few reasons, but the largest one is that it fails to really immerse you. It’s honest, well-rounded and as I said detailed, however there’s a lack of heart in there that withholds the opportunity to make you feel strongly about the pirates or really anyone else. By the end of it I didn’t find myself really liking pirates, being outraged by them, or anything. I didn’t find them particularly interesting in any way. They just were. Even the brutalities of their actions and demises read so matter-of-factly that I couldn’t get very absorbed. Not that I ever really welcome a bias, I do highly appreciate it when books really incorporate the author’s personality, and I’m left wondering if the author himself even really cares. It was like an otherwise skillfully prepared meal lacking in flavor. For such an exciting subject, this is especially disappointing.

I think the author really was trying to keep things as exciting as they should be, but given the lack of enthusiasm it falls flat. (“It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care,” comes to mind.) One other particular annoyance contributing to this for me was his assumption that the reader will have a somewhat intimate knowledge of 18th century boats. There is a chapter covering this, but it really didn’t have enough detail to sustain me through the rest of the book with a firm enough understanding to appreciate many of its passages, and as it was he didn’t make me at all interested. To include even more detail would have been incredibly tedious. This ends up creating a lose-lose situation.

Another thing I noticed was that the book tends to be disjointed and repetitive in places, even to the point where it feels like you must have read this section already. It’s really confusing the first time you encounter it, and you have to check the page again to make sure you haven’t accidentally gone back. The author tends to break off in the middle of a story only to finish it in another chapter, and this adds to the sense of tedium that I felt. I hate to admit that I ended up skimming pretty quickly over these parts. Battles sometimes return to the foreground a time or two, and you really don’t need to learn all over again what happened. And you don’t much feel like finishing something you already left 50 pages ago, especially since it was so lacking in energy the first time around. It creates a real sense of disorganization, and I just can’t see a method to the madness.

The detail works against the book here, and instead of being remotely insightful it ends up being just too confused and drawn out. The knowledge gained here thus feels completely pointless, not very new or sensational, and though no time learning is wasted, this came about as close as you can get.

Better recommendations: I’ll let you know when I find some.

Edison and the Electric Chair

In a fascinating combination of science and history, Edison and the Electric Chair reveals a fast-paced account of how the electric chair came to be with the help of the brilliant inventor Thomas Edison. While some may find the specter of death to be the most alluring aspect of this book going in, it is much rather Edison himself whom we find ourselves very much wanting to learn more about. He’s a man of child-like curiosity and endless enthusiasm, clever from the very start. The book recounts a story of his early days in the telegraph business, when some men at a new job tried to haze him by sending over messages they hoped would be far too quick to translate. Edison couldn’t be tripped up, and when the correspondent on the other end started going so quickly he made mistakes, Edison replied “You seem tired, suppose you send a while with your other foot.” From then on, he was fully accepted into the group.

But apart from being a lively, ebullient man of science, Edison was also incredibly intriguing. He was fiercely competitive, and even devious. He was strongly against capital punishment, and yet he did what he could to push electrocution as a humane new method of execution in order not only to ease the sufferings of the condemned, who until then had been hanged, but to discredit his competition, Westinghouse Electric. This web of intrigue and legal battles form the heart of the book and leave us wondering even more who exactly Edison was and what made him tick. Most of all, throughout the descriptions of his huge array of inventions, I was left wondering what exactly he would think of the technology of the world today. What would the man who invented the light bulb and the electric typewriter think about computers, for instance? This book could easily serve as a gateway to a full blown fascination for all things Edison.

For those of you far less scientifically-minded, the details of how dynamos, transformers, and voltages work might prove to be a little on the dry side. And they are extremely detailed, though thankfully keeping in mind that very few readers are electricians and going to have an ingrained understanding of them. I suspect it may also serve as a gateway in this sense in encouraging some readers to start dabbling more in science books, and if I had a better grasp of these things, and not such a strong disposition towards history above all else, I may be one of these people. In fact I’m sure a great deal of you will find these sections to be altogether delightful.

Those who pick up the book based on their taste for the macabre won’t be disappointed when the fatal moment arrives. The account of the first execution by the electric chair is riveting. Large undertakings such as these rarely work the very first time, and the results can be gruesome. I won’t say any more about this and ruin it for you, it’s arguably the best part of the book.

One thing I personally found missing was Edison’s relationship with Nikola Tesla. I know almost nothing about the man, but knowing at the very least that he existed and that there was a rivalry between them made me curious to know more, especially since each inventor has quite a following with very strong feelings against the other. This omission to me is glaring, but I suppose will have to remain a subject for another book. I wonder if others will feel the same way. It seems to contribute to the book somewhat going out with a fizzle instead of a bang, offering just one teasing glimpse to remind us that there might be more to the story than we were given.

So Thomas Edison, against capital punishment, encouraged the electric chair as a form of execution. In this way he professed to save lives as it would warn the world about the dangers of alternating current and therefor cripple Westinghouse electric. It didn’t work, and instead of being a step towards the abolition of capital punishment, the new method only encouraged it because of its relative humanity, and America’s culture of fondness for all things new and improved propelled it on a different course than the rest of the Western world. It is exactly as the title says, a story of light and death.

Other recommended reads: Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From the Telegraph to the X Ray

The Nun’s Story

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Written in another style, this book could be terrifying. Kathryn Hulme offers us visions of the ultimate in conformity, silent figures in black and white bound to the strictest obedience of the slightest detail, including thought itself. The main witness seeing not even a hint of emotion as a dead nun she just found with a knife in her back is carried off like an object no longer needed. She knows they care, but any display of such besides a few carefully chosen words uttered discreetly don’t seem to belong in this 1984-ish world. Indeed, the nuns seem to function on telepathy, and there are no secrets here. And this is her struggle, to live “a life against nature,” “all for Jesus.”

But as it is written, this story based on true events about the lives of nuns and the trials of Sister Luke is for the most part eerily peaceful, as it has a way of dropping you gently right into the middle of her world. Even the vagueness of time is presented here, as nearly every day in her memory passes indistinguishable from the last. As an outsider the answers to many of the questions and difficulties she faces may seem obvious, and you want to reach through the pages to shake her, and ask, “Why the hell is it like this? How is this good for anybody?” But as this book spends so little time explaining every little detail, and really shows it to you instead, you understand. You feel for her, alien as her life may be. You know what it’s like to try so hard to be perfect, but constantly question yourself and find yourself wanting. And this is ultimately what draws you in and makes you accept it.

The nuns seem to live as though they’re hypnotized. Detachment from the outside world is considered essential. Even their age and gender cease to matter, in certain key ways. Only The Rule matters. Those who evolve into Living Rules are the ultimate aspirational figures. But this would be a struggle for the strongest of people with the strongest of faith. For Sister Luke doubt is her only real companion, and it’s constant, even as she grows in her spiritual wisdom. Even when everyone else believes in her and she accomplishes her goal of working in the Congo missions, doubt continues to haunt her, as much as her memories of growing up with her doctor father. The hardest part is that for her the separation of herself from the outside world must be largely symbolic. Sister Luke follows in her father’s footsteps in the medical field, and thus is thrust into it through the care she must take of ordinary people. People of every kind.

This intersection of worlds is where the story climaxes. Because in the outside world, violence is a reality. And so is war. But in the nun’s world, unconditional forgiveness is too. God commands his followers to love their enemies. There is no excuse for not obeying The Rule. The ultimate battle of Sister Luke revolves around whether or not she is capable of this, whether or not she really does belong in a convent living the life of a nun. As the years pass, she begins to feel more and more like a fraud.

Arguably, you could say that she begins to wake up from the hypnotism that never fully had her in its grasp. Unshakable hate for the Nazi enemy, and a sense of duty to her country of Belgium takes over. The ideology that it’s up to God alone to judge people for their sins is in itself admirable. But it raises the question of where to draw the line. How brutally wrong does someone have to be before we step up and take action for ourselves? Whether or not Sister Luke is able to accept all the death and destruction around her, whether she can uphold her vows or will instead seek a divorce from God is up to the reader to find out. And as you do, you might find yourself wondering what you would do in the same situation, not as an outsider, but as someone dedicated to the religious life as she is. Poetic to the end, this book compels you to examine the state of your own soul.

Other recommended reads: Black Like Me