Sunday, January 23, 2011

#3 Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

I don't normally enjoy medieval history, it's not as interesting as ancient Roman to me, but Four Queens was a pretty good read.  Nancy Goldstone did what entirely too few historians can do-- she wrote a compelling account of French and English medieval politics. 

The book starts with a description of life in the Provencal court of Raymond Berger V.  He and his wife, Beatrice of Savoy, made their little section of the world a place for troubadours, intelligence, art, fun.  Their four daughters, Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice, benefited from this fro this environment and through luck and the exchange of a lot of money, each became a queen. 

The oldest, Marguerite, married Louis IX of France, a kind but insanely religious man with no real abilities.  Marguerite's intelligence and diplomacy helped her navigate a French court led by an antagonistic mother-in-law, Blanche of Castille, the real ruler of France.  Marguerite learned from Blanche and eventually became a well-respected queen in her own right.  The second sister, Eleanor, married Henry III of England, the son of the reviled King John, who was a well-meaning but largely ineffectual ruler.  Eleanor and Henry had success and failures: together they obtained peace with France, due in no small part to Marguerite, but they had large battles with the barons that led to civil war and almost cost them their lives.  Eleanor's determination and intelligence got her through the hard times and she eventually got to see her son Edward become a success.

The third sister, Sanchia, was quiet and devoted to her mother and son.  She married Henry's brother Richard, who eventually became the king of Germany.  Sanchia did not want or expect much from life but was embroiled in the politics of the day.  The youngest, Beatrice, inherited Provence after her father's death, infuriating her sisters.  She married Louis' brother Charles of Anjou, who was just as determined and entitled as Beatrice.  Together they often conspired against their siblings, eventually winning the titles of king and queen of Sicily. 

These four sisters had a large influence on western Europe at the time and they all tried to use it well.  They survived crusades, intrigues, civil war, and motherhood, just trying to do the best for their families and countries.  Goldstone tells an interesting piece of medieval history and does so without ever making it dry or letting up on the action.  No line is wasted with this story, requiring a thorough reading, but it is definitely worth it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki is the author of one of my favorite books, The Makioka Sisters, and since reading it in high school I have slowly been working my way through his novels and short stories.  I feel a little bit like Desmond from Lost when I think about his books- I'm hesitant to start them because I enjoy reading them so much I don't want it to be over, and I would be happy if his were the last books I ever read.  I've actually had several of his books waiting to be read for a few years until I could sit down a really appreciate them.  Some Prefer Nettles is definitely not his best work, in my opinion, but it is fascinating and engrossing.  I had a hard time putting this down to go to class and ending up reading it in a couple hours. 

The story is set mainly in 1920's Osaka and explores the odd relationship between Kaname and his wife Mitsuko.  Both from Tokyo, the center of a modern Japanese culture that embraces western influence, Kaname and Mitsuko despise Osakan culture for its traditionalism.  After ten years, their marriage can barely be called one- they function more as roommates and Kaname even allows Mitsuko to have an affair.  The plan is divorce but neither wants to tell people first, so they live their lives in indecision.  There son suspects that something is terribly wrong, but both make endless excuses to avoid telling him.  Meanwhile, Kaname seeks out his father-in-law, initially to cushion the blow of bad news, but he soon becomes entranced by old traditions.  His new-found passion for puppet theater and his father-in-law's doll-like mistress, O-hisa, make him question his choices for the past several years and his embrace of western culture. 

Now if you decide to read this book, I would suggest skipping the introduction.  It gives a good background on Tanizaki but gives away the ending to Nettles.  It was a really stupid move to include that.  Tanizaki had a gift for making his characters psychologically complex, to borrow a phrase from the back cover.  You can feel Kaname's indecision and the allure that classical Japan would have for him as he struggles with his marriage, his family, and his mistress.  Tanizaki even made descriptions of the puppet theater fascinating, which is a dying art form that I always found to be a little creepy.  It is suggested that he based Kaname on himself, he did divorce his wife a couple years later.  The realism that he brings to the story would suggest that this is true. 

For those that hate the ambiguous, this is not the book for you.  Tanizaki did not believe in minute detail and giving answers to every question.  But if you want a glimpse into the clashing of modern and traditional Japanese culture, or just an introduction to Tanizaki, this is an excellent choice.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

the secret lives of baba segi's wives by Lola Shoneyin

Yay, I'm done with my first book of the new year.  It's going to be kind of a slow start for me as I get some gifts finished for my sister.  Luckily this book was a fairly quick and enjoyable read for recuperating from a cold.  I tend to measure a book by how often my mind gets distracted by other thoughts.  If I'm thinking a lot about my life, which isn't the most interesting, then the book is not worth the effort.  But Shoneyin's novel kept me interested.

The story centers around a wealthy Nigerian family.  The patriarch, Baba Segi, has four wives and seven children, but is kept miserable because his fourth wife, Bolanle, has not yet conceived.  His first and third wives, Iya Segi and Iya Femi, are hateful women, jealous of Bolanle's education and worried about theirs and their children's place in the family with the addition of another wife.  They do everything in their power to make her life miserable enough so that she will leave.  The second wife, Iya Tope, is a sweet but slow woman that looks on powerlessly at the harm done to Bolanle. The first three wives share a secret that you will probably guess early on, but it doesn't affect the enjoyment of the book.

Shoneyin uses multiple narrators, which isn't something that I usually like, but it works with this story because there is very little spoken between the core characters.  Most of the novel is frustrating and sad, just like real life, so if you want a happy read you should look elsewhere.  A big part of the reason that I enjoyed this book is because I'm nosy and the story picks apart people's lives and tells us what they would never want made public.  I don't think that I will read this again but I would recommend it to those who want a quick read and are as nosy as I am.