Saturday, May 13, 2006

Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory

One more wonderful historical novel from Philippa Gregory, this time about John Tradescant, the true life gardener for Robert Cecil and Lord Buckingham, after Queen Elizabeth I and during the reigns of King Charles I and King James II, covering 1603-1638. Tradescant developed amazing gardens for his masters, collecting unique plants from all over the world. I read someplace that author Gregory got into gardening herself after researching for this book. The details about the process of gardening and the planning of the large formal gardens was fascinating. Tradescant not only brought a lot of unique plants to England, including chestnuts, but he also furthered the art of garden design, modifying the formal patterns of the day. (Here's another book I'd like to look at with some illustrations.)
As usual, I was fascinated with the historical details. Politics hasn't changed much over the centuries. It is amazing how inept some rulers can be, sending their soldiers into unnecessary wars ill prepared (in this case with no food supplies or tents), and how people behind the scenes are the ones with the real power.
The Holland tulip business was described, with rare bulbs being worth their wieght in gold. A whole market economy grew up around them with trades and futures, and when it crashed, it really crashed, but obviously Holland has continued trading in tulip bulbs up to this day.
I continue to enjoy the glimpses into the private lives - the choosing of mates, the courtship (or early betrothal), their lives together. Tradescant's wife would relate to today's wives, whose husbands have a demanding job and have to travel a lot.
I'm glad there is a sequel to this, which I hope to get to soon.

Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Another wonderful book of historical fiction about Tudor England by Gregory! I regret listening to it instead of reading it, as the audio recordings are abridged, and I miss all the descriptive detail provided by Gregory. This book took a look at the childhood and early years of Katherine of Aragon - daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, married to Arthur, prince of England, who dies within five months of their marriage. She holds out until she can marry prince Henry, and only then it dawned on me that she was the first wife of the many wives of King Henry VIII.

As always, there were so many things that fascinated me about the historical facts and lives of the people of those times, which Gregory brings forth in such rich detail. Among them - Queen Isabella was an amazing woman, warrior and leader in her time. I need to read more on the conflict between the Spanish and the Moors. The Moors had a higher level of knowledge in healing and probably other things, which the Spanish lost when the pushed the Moors out of Spain. (When Katherine is forced to ask a Moor doctor for help to bear a healthy child, she has to fight an inner battle to accept his help.) When descendants of royalty are betrothed in their cradles, it leads to a strange non-courtship and husband - wife relations. The whole process of public bedding on the wedding night seemed strange. This can be a very ackward time for the couple, as Gregory shows in both this book and Earthly Joys. The importance of virginity and consumation of marriage is incredibly important in those days and a key to Katharine's story. The importance of bearing an heir, a male heir, is so great, that it is considered the main, if not only responsibility of the queen of England.

I liked that Katherine had learned the organization of war campaigns from her parents, so when Henry is ready to take off and do battle, she prepares the supplies needed, trains the soldiers, get the ships ready, etc. And while he is in France, she does her own battle with the Scots, defeats them, but doesn't destroy them and creates an alliance instead, insuring peace (at least for a while.) This is in sharp contrast the totally unprepared campaign described in Earthly Joys, where the King and Lord Buckinham set sail totally unprepared, without supplies, with great delays, at the wrong time of year, etc.

The book ends with Katherine walking into the court room proud and tall, though we all know that this is where Henry VIII will get permission to divorce her, and her life will change profoundly, but Gregory leaves her in that state of hope. (Listened May 2006)

De-coding Da Vinci by Amy Welborn

"The facts behind the fiction of The Da Vinci Code." I was looking for a well rounded discussion about what is and what isn't true in Dan Brown's book, and this was the only book still available on the library shelves, but this didn't do it for me. Though the author has a depth of knowledge in this field, she loses her credibility with me through her non-objectivity, like her repetition of the Bible as the most accurate description of Christ's life. I have not researched this field, but I am quite certain some of her facts were not accurate, e.g. there were quite a few cultures around the time of Christ who created similar myths around their spiritual leaders.

The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction - not accurate historical fiction that I often like, but an alternative historical fiction. What if... Jesus was married and had a bloodline preserved to this day? I don't care if it is true, I like the speculation. And to deny that Christianity is patriarchal - mostly from the church leaders throughout the centuries is ludicrous. It is not enough to have the Christ's mother mentioned occasionally. I understood her power while visiting the Cloisters (in NY) while pregnant and looking at all the Madonna paintings and sculptures. I was very drawn to them and understood how important she was to women, as very little else speaks to women directly. I don't remember her emphasized in the Lutheran church in which I was raised. The "sacred feminine" is important and mostly denied by Christianity, even persecuted. Looks like I will have to look further for discussions of The Da Vinci Code. (May 2006)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I read (listened to) this book when it first became popular and promised myself I would buy it when it came out in paperback. Well, I ended up spending as much, or even more than I would for the hardback, but I got the illustrated version - and love it. I am always frustrated when books talk of paintings or architecture and I would like a visual to see what the characters are seeing. This was perfect for an illustrated edition, as it mentions so many works of art and architecture. For example, I had seen pictures of the new I.M. Pei pyramid addition to the Louvre, but to see the inverse pyramid in the lower courtyard helped me visualize the after hours activities in the Louvre described in the book. When I first read the book, I went looking for the Leonardo Da Vinci paintings mentioned, especially the Last Supper. I also have a wondrous childhood memory of going to see the Mona Lisa in some museum in New York, waiting in long lines to see this small, but significant painting.

Though I remembered the basic plot, I still enjoyed all the twists and turns in Brown's book. I am also very sympathetic to the basic premise, that the feminine or "sacred feminine" as Brown calls it, was squelched by the male leaders in Christianity. I don't care very much if Jesus was married or if some of his descendents are still alive today, but I am angry at all the women that were persecuted by the church, and how so many natural processes became sinful.

One thought that converged in my mind while simultaneously reading this and the Constant Princess (to be entered into the blog soon), where a Spanish princess is forced to receive treatment from a Moor doctor, who knows so much more than the English or Spanish about herbs and natural healing. When the Spanish forced the Moors out of their land, they also lost that knowledge and many became sick. So too the church fought so hard against the wise women throughout the lands, and later the "medical profession" fought against midwives, thus losing a wealth of knowledge about healing that we are trying to regain today.

I liked the characters of Robert Langdon, that tweedy academic, and Sophie Noveu, the French cryptologist who is the granddaughter of Jacques Sauniere, the curator of the Louvre. Sauniere is killed in the prologue and leaves a series of cryptic messages for his granddaughter to decipher, with the help of Langdon. It is an exciting mystery novel, so that I could even tolerate it when it started getting too preachy.

This book has created lots of controversy. We even had a discussion with one of the critics, a religion professor at our university. I actually read one of the criticisms (see next entry), but found I really didn't care for the arguments. Some are faith based, so if you don't believe in the basic premise, the criticism doesn't make sense. I liked the speculation in the book. This is a work of fiction, so it is not expected to reflect all truth. I think am intrigued enough to do some more reading on this.

(Finished reading 5/1/06)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Howard Carter: Searching for King Tut by Barbara Ford

After reading the Tomb of the Golden Bird, I was interested in learning a bit more about the excavation of King Tut's tomb, and I found this book for young readers (though it was in the main stacks of the university library) about Howard Carter, the man who found the tomb and did the excavating. I just wanted to tease apart fact from fiction presented in the mystery. Interestingly, Carter had no formal education, but was just fascinated with all things Egyptian from a private collection in England that he had seen. He had learned to be an artist from his father, an important role in archeological excavation, as I learned in both books. Though they also seemed to use photographers to document what they found (maybe not in color in those days - the find was in 1922 and took 10 years to excavate), seems that each archeological team also included at least one artist to draw the items found, the placement of them, the paintings on the walls, etc. Carter had the opportunity to get to Egypt as one of these artists and learned about archeology from Flinders Petrie, who developed a scientific approach - noting the location of each item and keeping even the smallest fragments. It turned out that it was a fact that Carter and his benefactor and a few closest colleagues did sneak into the tomb before it was officially opened. I understand curiosity completely. I guess I will have to read more before going to see the exhibit coming to Chicago soon. (Read 5/3/06)

Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters

I've read mysteries by Peters before and haven't been thrilled, but they are OK. This one was no different. They mystery itself was a non-mystery, and I didn't really care for Amanda Peabody, the main character. I guess there are a whole series of her books. But the historical setting was great - Egypt at the time of finding and opening of King Tut's tomb. I liked the archeological details and that there seems to be a whole subculture of Englishmen drawn to Egypt at the time. I wonder if there are still English there now and how active is the archeological community there or have they moved on? I am not sure how accurately Peters portrayed the relationships with the local Egyptians, but they seemed OK. I could definitely get into the excitement of finding the first almost untouched tomb and all its wonderful treasures. I have seen the books, but not the treasures themselves. They are coming to the Chicago Field Museum soon. Amanda's large bustling family and friends was enjoyable, though Amanda herself often grated on my nerves, especially her penchant for matchmaking. But it got me excited about King Tut again and I even read another short book about Howard Carter, the man who found and led the excavation of the tomb. (Listened to in April 2006)