bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I just finished reading Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day, by Ferdinand Gregorovius.

I was reading this book, more or less, for a very, very long time.

I started reading it on Kindle back during one of the summers I was working at Pearson, picking it up after finishing Rafael Sabatini's The Life of Cesare Borgia because Ellen and I were in a Big The Borgias phase at the time. At some point I opened it on the Kindle app on my phone and it became The Book I Was Reading On My Phone, you know, the one I read when a) I don't have another book or e-reader on me and b) I'm not doing other stuff on my phone like checking Twitter or playing Sudoku. In other words... basically never. Hence the multi-year delay in finishing it.

This biography was first published in 1904 and presumably written several years before that, since 1904 appears to be after the author's death. It's very 19th century in style in that it has not learned to ape the trappings of objectivity, and the author regularly opines at great length about who is virtuous and who is dastardly, and rages against other historians whom he believes have come to the wrong conclusions about the various 15th/16th century Italian personages. On the upside, the book gives a pretty comprehensive look at what he could find out about Lucrezia's life and the lives of the rest of her family, and is very well sourced, quoting extensively from primary sources and illustrating exactly where there are gaps or questions of veracity in the historical record. So while it is definitely dated, it's not a bad piece of scholarly work for the time. It is, however, a little dry and hard to follow sometimes, largely due to the author's ever so proper habit of referring to people by their titles rather than their given names much of the time, and many nobles of the era went through a lot of different titles over the course of their lives.

The author is enormously pro-Lucrezia and unfortunately I think that's sort of boring? Like, evil scheming incest murderess Lucrezia is much more INTERESTING than gracious pious family lady Lucrezia who has been the innocent victim of slander because of her power-hungry relatives. There's fortunately some solid information on the machinations of said power-hungry relatives to keep things interesting, though.

Overall this was an interesting enough curiosity but if you want to actually learn about the Borgias there are many much more recent and probably more easily readable books available. I should check some of them out one of these days. And if you just want to be entertained, the ridiculous Showtime show is very fun (and has a very attractive cast).
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising, a lot of new books on the subject are being published. One major set of new releases I saw pretty much all over Ireland when I was there was a series of biographies called 16 Lives, the lives in question being the sixteen leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed in its aftermath. I was tempted to buy all sixteen, but a) that would have been expensive and b) trying to get them all home on the plane would have been awful, especially considering how much other stuff I bought. So I settled for just getting the one on Padraic Pearse -- simply titled 16 Lives: Patrick Pearse, because for some reason they thought the English name was better -- by Ruan O'Donnell.
The book is both well sourced and written in a straightforward, accessible style, but I still bounced off it a bit more than I was expecting to, which was disappointing. I pretty much only have one gripe with the book, but it's a pretty significant one, in that it's "the structure of the entire book." I wanted more material on the development of Pearse's life and career before all the Rising stuff that has been so amply covered elsewhere. My favorite sections of the book were the first two chapters, one on "The Young Pearse" and one on "Republican Politics" that covered the establishment of his career, but after that it slowed down for me a lot -- there are three chapters on the planning and the events leading up to Easter Monday, then a chapter on Easter Week and a chapter on its aftermath, then it ends. The aftermath chapter is gruesomely interesting, but I definitely felt like the story that was being told had far too much middle and not enough setup.
That said, the picture of Pearse that develops in the book is fascinating and human -- committedly idealistic but with a strong pragmatic streak; progressive but devoutly Catholic; a future-oriented man with a strong (if hilariously romanticized) sense of Ireland's history. Buried under the shmaltzy Edwardian dramatics of his writing, there even lurks an occasional sense of humor. He also managed the trick of being highly accomplished in a number of different fields, all of which manage to come together into seeming like one big project. He must have been a very, very interesting person to actually meet.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Nonfiction reading for March was Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen by Anne Chambers, a biography of Grace O’Malley aka Granuaile aka fifty million variant spellings. Going into this I mostly knew that Grace O’Malley was a sixteenth century Irish pirate queen who had met with Queen Elizabeth and is supposedly buried on Clare Island, which I take as a message from the universe that I need to go visit at some point.

This is a slim book, largely because not very much is known about Grace O’Malley’s life. A lot of the book details the political shenanigans in Ireland that the O’Malleys were dealing with, including rivalries between Gaelic chieftains, administrative tightening by Tudor England, and occasional interference from Spain. The book contains a good selection of maps and family trees, and explains the different factions and developments in a way that’s easy to read for someone unfamiliar with Irish history. It’s also pretty good about presenting the oddly spelled, wordy Tudor primary sources in a way that’s easy to decipher but still shows off the delightfully weird writing style.

My biggest issue with this book is that the edition I was reading (revised American edition from 2003) seems to have been rushed to print without so much as a single round of proofreading. For such a short book there were dozens of random misspellings, sentences missing words, and punctuation strewn about.

Granuaile herself comes across as a fascinating, complex, and shrewd historical character, highly political and nigh impossible to keep down for long. The family drama aspect of her life—all her relations were also political chieftains, making deals and alliances and factions and things—makes me think there could be a great serial drama made about her life. She was fighting and pirating and politicking, leading men into battle by land and sea, all the way up until at least her mid-sixties. She had an arch-nemesis—Sir Richard Bingham, the Puritan English governor of Connaught—and reading about her manipulating Queen Elizabeth herself into getting Bingham to back off is deeply satisfying.

Overall I’d really like to learn more, both about Granuaile and about the world she lived in, but this makes a very good primer for both.
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So, for my Classics books club, I admit I somewhat rushed my way through Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. As the book club meeting was tonight and I picked it up only last Sunday, I was afraid I wouldn’t finish it on time. Luckily, it’s a relatively short book, only 300 pages (which I suppose is not particularly short; it’s just not particularly long either), and it was much quicker reading than a lot of the other classics we’ve read (I was afraid it would be as dense as Proust, but it’s really, really not).

Speak, Memory mostly covers the earlier parts of Nabokov’s life, up through his time at Trinity College in Cambridge, although it tends to jump around a lot chronologically, and the last chapter is mostly about his son. Nabokov talks a lot about memory itself, the way it works and doesn’t work, the things he remembers and misremembers and forgets, and the way in which he tends to lose his grip on his memories of things when he uses them in his novels—the memory becomes one of his characters’ memories rather than his own. It’s all very self-aware and thought-provoking, and you can see why this is the guy who’s famous for writing with unreliable narrators.

While Nabokov paints poignant and frequently comic sketches about a whole bunch of aspects of his childhood, including portraits of all this tutors and governesses, and the houses where he lived, and his ancestors and family members, the bits I liked best involved his hobbies of catching butterflies and writing poetry. The butterfly stuff I liked largely because it was fabulously written, and it provides a common thread that is worked into many of the subsequent stories, and because the portrayal of young Vladimir with this awesome scientific hobby that none of the adults understand and who are all various flavors of patronizing about it is just really sad.

The poetry bits I liked because they are HOLY GOD SO SPOT ON about the trials and tribulations of writing shitty adolescent poetry. He writes about falling into using disorganized clichés instead of the images in one’s own head because of certain words rhyming, and about how derivative one can be even when one works really hard on every line, and about how pretty much everyone but his mom completely savaged his poetry. I laughed at loud when he said he wrote a poem about “a mistress I had never lost, never loved, and never met, but whom I was entirely prepared to meet, love, and lose”—which I think is derivative adolescent poetry in a nutshell, really.

I admit to rather liking the bits where he complains about how his classmates at Cambridge, while usually very well-educated, liberal, and sensible men, were all complete idiots about Russia, and seemed to have no interest in rectifying their ignorance, and how this drove college-aged Nabokov entirely up a wall. Nabokov, as a character, seems to be a rather judgy and asocial dude, but this is okay, as we are reading a memoir, not hanging out with him at a party, and he’s really quite funny when complaining about people.

I’m afraid I’m rather talked out about this book as I just had a two-hour discussion on it, but I will leave you with one observation: After the text of the book ends, my edition has a one-page “About the Author” section. Does anyone else think this seems a bit stupid? I just read 300 pages about the author. The only information in the About the Author section not covered in the preceding 300 pages is his death, which could quite easily be presented as a single line at the end of the books saying “Vladimir Nabokov died in (place) on (date) of (cause).”
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Several weeks ago, I ventured down to Brookline Booksmith to acquire a copy of Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I felt kind of pretentious going up to the cashier with only this, so I also grabbed a copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I like to think Ms. Fey would understand.

My mother told me that Bossypants was the funniest thing she had read in years. In reading it myself, I can see why she said that! I must admit that I personally found it to be only one of the funniest things I’ve read in years, possibly because I related to it slightly less. Tina Fey is a middle-aged lady with a child, and my mother is also a middle-aged lady who has had children, so she probably appreciated the humor about middle age and child-rearing more than I did. Also, I read a lot of comic novels, whereas my mother tends to read books about strategic planning in museums and articles from the Journal of Higher Education, so, there’s that.

Bossypants is structured as a loose collection of memoir-y essays, some of which I believe were originally published as stand-alone articles, arranged in more-or-less chronological order. Her stories about her endearingly awkward childhood are interspersed with insightful observations about the weird expectations people have for children and families, particularly girls, and some embarrassing childhood photos. My favorite chapter is All Girls Must be Everything, a short, bullet-pointed takedown of beauty standards for women and the ways in which their ridiculousness has increased since the seventies. This chapter can be found sandwiched between the chapter about getting sex ed so ineffective that she was surprised when her first period wasn’t blue, and the chapter about facing her own internalized homophobia at theater camp (it’s funnier than I made it sound).

A lot of the book is about work; namely, the trials and tribulations of trying to develop a career in comedy. All stories about developing careers in the arts have to have a section about the terrible day jobs you hold for the first several years so you don’t die, and Tina Fey delivers on this one with a series of anecdotes about working at the Chicago YMCA in the nineties. I knew very little about Tina Fey’s career before the Sarah Palin thing, so it was great fun for me to follow the rambling path of weird shit happening that seems to make up her life. The weird shit in question takes a turn for the extra weird when she gets to New York, because it’s New York. Apparently, a lot more of the stuff on 30 Rock is real then I knew. Ick.

True to the title, Tina Fey is at her best here when giving the reader Life Advice From Someone Who Made It. Perfectly mimicking the chirpy, empowerful, vaguely condescending tone of the modern self-help article, she uses this format to tell all sorts of stories about her own haplessness on a wide variety of topics Relevant to the Modern Woman, including beauty routines, conserving energy while raising a newborn baby, management techniques and principles, going on photo shoots, and surviving Christmas.

To end on an appropriately absurd note, the book ends with a number of advertisements emphatically admonishing the reader not to buy the print version, which is it’s a bit too late for, considering these ads are at the back of the print version. But I gather that the audiobook is particularly funny.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
These past coupla weeks I've been reading a book I picked up at the doctor's office last year: The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd, by Richard Zacks.

Captain Kidd, as you may have heard, has become a rather legendary pirate; known for making one of the biggest pirate hauls in history (a ship spelled variously as the Whydah or Quedagh Merchant) and burying treasure all up 'n' down the eastern coast of the Americas, which nobody has yet found, but a hell of a lot of people have looked for.

This picture is almost entirely false. For starters--and this is gonna blow your mind, until you remember that money is the root of all evil--Captain Kidd wasn't even a pirate.

There is totally a pirate involved in this story, a clever, charismatic douchebag named Robert Culliford, whom history has mostly forgotten. (Note to self: Write movie about Robert Culliford.)

The situation was more or less like this: Captain Kidd was hired by a bunch of très riche Lords (plus one very bad-tempered, gouty, perennially broke Lord named Lord Bellomont, who would later be Governor of Massachusetts) to hunt pirates and French ships. His mission was (a) secret and (b) a bit shady, because it contained legally iffy clauses that any goods recovered from pirates would *not* be returned to their owners, but be considered revenue for the mission (ie, it would go to the Crown, the investors, and some would become shares for the crew, etc.). Kidd hired on a crew in what was then the very small walled city of New York, most of them pirates or former pirates. The first, like, two years of the mission were fantastically unsuccessful, and involved Kidd pissing off a lot of East India Company representatives and other hotshots who snottily decided that he must be a pirate because he was insufficiently deferential. His crew mutinied or threatened to mutiny several times. They did not meet a single pirate or French ship.

Near the end, Kidd made some great hauls, including the capture of the Quedagh Merchant, and so did Robert Culliford, now not on Kidd's crew anymore, due to all sorts of complicated logistical shenanigans that I will not recount for you now because I do not remember them properly.

By the time Kidd got back to the Americas with his booty, he was Wanted with a capital W as a Notorious Pirate (or Pyrate, or Pyratt, or pirouette... they hadn't really got the hang of inventing spelling yet), his secretive lordly backers pretty much hung him out to dry, Lord Bellomont was super cranky that Kidd did not end up bringing back quite as much treasure as he'd hoped (because he'd hidden some of it, but also because he'd traded quite a bit of it away), and he was shipped off to Newgate and eventually (he was held without being charged for a VERY long time, like two years) tried and convicted as a pirate and murderer in an absolute farce of a trial, which was pretty much the standard sort of trial.

ANYWAY. The best bits of this book are all the Wacky Historical Tidbits, as far as I'm concerned. I learned about why Wall Street is called Wall Street (it used to be along the city wall at the outskirts of NYC, when NYC was a tacky pirate haven with a populaton of 5,000), and that it was already the investment hot spot in New York, because it was full of taverns where ship captains would hire crews/pirates/smugglers and trade shares of voyages. I learned some really gross stuff about Newgate Prison and the church-going fashions of late seventeenth century Dutch New Yorker women. I learned that the first citywide shutdown-and-manhunt in Boston's history was in November of 1699, for the pirate James Gilliam, who had sailed under Kidd. (The shutdown was because it was the Sabbath and Boston used to always shut down on the Sabbath. Also, the city was a lot smaller then.) I learned that some ships used to use logs painted black to appear more heavily armed than they were, and these dummy cannon were known as Quakers. I learned so many things!

Also, all the old-timey spelling is hilarious, particularly from less-educated people, or people who were in a big hurry. Some of it is nigh incomprehensible! It is like a little game, trying to figure out what in the blazes they were on about. (Turns out, usually death and money.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in pirates; it's very well-researched and very readable, and it's one of those cases where the truth turns out to be a better story than the legend.
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Would we all like to talk about how much I suck for not updating in forever?

Basically, I have been lazy and stressed out because Reasons, and therefore I have been holing up and reading a lot but not getting around to blogging about what I've been reading, so I am now six books behind. Oops! So I suck a lot. NEXT SUBJECT.

The next subject is: Life After Death by Damien Echols. Yes, that Damien Echols! I have talked a little bit about how interesting I think this dude is here and here, and now I will talk about it more.

Life After Death doesn't talk much about the case directly, although there is a short section tacked on to the end (written by somebody else) that gives an overview of the main details of it. The organization of the book is quite effective, I think--it is a memoir, but instead of being in strict chronological order, it is separated into two main narrative threads that alternate back and forth--one is Damien's life from early childhood through being sent to prison; the second is from arriving in prison through the WM3's release.

Damien's stories of his life pre-prison are pretty grim, describing a childhood of extreme poverty, familial abuse, social isolation, frequent moves, several years' of harassment by Arkansas cops (apparently, the cops in the Pacific Northwest were perfectly congenial; it was just the Arkansas ones who were uniformly mean with bad seventies pornstaches), a couple of largely bogus institutionalizations, and being surrounded by general conservative fundiness. In the hands of a less gifted writer, this would all probably end up as an unreadably depressing mess of terrible things; however, Echols writes with pathos and a strong sense of magick, and even sometimes humor.

The writings from and about prison are... well, extreme. I don't particularly feel qualified to judge or critique them in any way; they are the sort of thing that must simply be listened to, and accepted, and allowed to educate you and fill you up with new and upsetting perspectives. Echols talks about his religious practices, about the culture of prison inmates and the creative ways they find to get basic things done, about the sadism of the guards and the toll it takes on the inmates, about the lack of mental and physical health services available for those on Death Row and the ways in which the state of Arkansas pretends to follow the prohibition on executing the mentally disabled. He talks about television and the food and the letters he got from supporters. He talks about his wife, Lorri, and about the books he reads. And he tells a lot of anecdotes about fellow prisoners, some of which are sad, some of which are scary, and some of which are funny; and many of which are some combination thereof.

There are some aspects of the book that are more relatable to someone as sheltered as me and which answered a lot of stupid questions I had after watching the documentaries, such as, How fucking embarrassing is it to have your crappy teen poetry immortalized in a movie? Answer: Excruciatingly embarrassing, apparently, although Echols maintains a sense of humor about his "terrible taste." Also, what was with the terrible haircut, and why did he look so much fatter during the trial than in any photos/video taken before or after?


"No, I am NOT fucking ready for my close-up!"

Apparently, in prison they starve you, but in jail they feed you lots of cheap fattening food.

This is definitely a book about a guy who has had a lot of weird shit happen to him, and while the stuff that happened to and around him is very interesting and educational and upsetting, the two parts of the book that really stuck in my mind the most were two anecdotes of the Damien Engages in Evil Plotting variety (as much as I like memoir writers who are astute observers of fuckwittery, I like it better when they manage to successfully push back against some of it)... one was the tale of the carefully crafted propaganda campaign he played on his family so that they would allow him to become Catholic, and the other was when he used his (according to him, largely bogus and certainly overblown) psychiatric diagnoses to apply for Social Security disability so he didn't have to work and could spend all day reading instead. Go Damien!

Literally my only complaints about this book are two instances of the phrase "politically correct," which is a largely meaningless phrase that connotes only a vague sense of superiority and distancing. I don't begrudge Mr. Echols a sense of superiority at all, since he seems to have spent most of his life surrounded by fundies, sadists, and fuckwits, but most of the time he does a very good job at effectively depicting fuckwittery using colorful words that mean things, so the instances of weak language kind of jumped out at me. Police officers, Christians (especially Protestants), people from the South, and people with terrible seventies pornstaches may have more issues with the book than I do.

The book has a more or less happy ending, despite the inadequacies of the Alford Plea deal and Damien's multitude of prison-induced health problems--he gets out of prison, eats himself sick on real food, gets the fuck out of Arkansas, and plays in the snow with his awesome celebrity friends.


D'aww.

Me being a chronic asker of stupid questions, the main thing I want to know after reading this book is "What are you going to write about now that your life doesn't suck anymore?" I will wait and see, I suppose. In the meantime, West of Memphis comes out in December.
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Last weekend, after staying up late drinking and giving myself a terrible headache, I decided to take a break from my summer plan of only reading foofy fantasy novels and read something that would make me stop feeling so whiny and self-pitying about the headache. Then I tucked myself into bed for the weekend with a lot of water and my roommate's copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Mission was a success. Will never complain about hangovers again.

This book tells, more or less, three stories. One, it tells the story of the HeLa line of cells--the first immortal line of human cells to be successfully cultured, and therefore an extremely important cell line in medical history, and the founding line of a multi-million dollar industry in cultivating cells for all sorts of tissue research. HeLa cells have even been sent to space, to see what being in space does to cells. This story is very cool.

Second, but definitely most important, this book tells the story of the woman the cells came from and her family. The cells were taken in the 1950s, when medical ethics and particularly tissue research ethics were a bit... loose. They came from the tumor of a cervical cancer patient named Henrietta Lacks, a tobacco farmer who was being treated in the "colored" public ward of Johns Hopkins. Immortal Life chronicles her life, her multitude of other health problems, and her quick but incredibly painful death from the extremely aggressive cancer. (The autopsy report said that by the time she died, she had so many tumors that when they cut her open it looked like her body had been "stuffed with pearls.") It also talks about her family, and particularly the lives of her children following her death, and their experiences with the medical establishment and learning about their mother. It's a really disturbing tale, as the family was never in any way compensated and didn't even know their mother's cells had been taken for twenty years afterwards. They couldn't afford health insurance, and when Johns Hopkins did offer them affordable doctor's visits, it was to do research on them without informed consent. The story talks about a lot of issues about the intersections of class, race, and the medical establishment, particularly when it comes to access and patients' rights.

The third story is the story of Rebecca Skloot actually going about the process of writing the book, which some people found annoying or off-topic or self-centered, but I liked it--it provided a sort of detective-story framework to organize the book around, which I like in narrative nonfiction, and it also allows for us to get to know Henrietta's descendents better (and you get a really good first-hand look at their attitudes towards white journalists poking around).

Overall, I found this book to be very interesting, very well-written, and very informative about a wide range of things. It is also deeply disturbing. Henrietta Lacks' cancer treatment and the development of her cancer cells into the HeLa line happened around the same time as the Tuskegee Institute syphilis studies, which I had heard of, and the "Mississippi appendectomies"--hysterectomies done on black women without their knowledge or consent while they were in hospitals for other medical care, so that doctors in training could practice the procedure--which I had not. The history of Johns Hopkins' treatment of the patients in its "colored" facilities is very spotty--while the ward was created with benevolent intentions (not all medical practices had any programs for low-income people at all, and many refused to treat black patients as well), the general attitude seemed to be that, for its charity, the hospital was entitled to basically use the colored ward as a research lab, without informing its patients. But John Hopkins starts to looks like a pretty warm and fuzzy kind of place when we get to the part of the story where Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot try to track down what happened to Henrietta's daugher Elsie, who had seizures and was mentally retarded (probably as a result of Henrietta's syphilis, which may also be responsible for the partial deafness is two of her other children). When Elsie got too big for Henrietta to handle on her own, she was sent to the Crownsville psychiatric center, which at that time was known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. If there's one thing in the world more terrifying and disturbing to read about than the history of mental health care, it is the history of mental health care for minorities. Overcrowded, understaffed, and with almost no educational or recreational resources for the inhabitants--a disturbingly high percentage of whom were children--Crownsville's mortality rate was twice as high as its discharge rate. The book also describes a number of the painful treatments that were in practice at the time, including the practice of draining all the fluid from the brain cavity and filling it with air so that they could X-ray the brain without interference--a process that caused excruciating headaches in the patient, as well as, obviously, increasing the risk of brain damage until enough replacement fluid was produced. (Like I said. Never complaining about mere hangover headaches again.) So... yeah, that part really upset me. There's been a lot of really shady stuff done by the medical establishment over the years. If you can handle reading about it, then this book is great.

Also, if you buy this book, instead of borrowing it from someone like I did (which I now kinda feel bad about), part of the proceeds go to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides education and healthcare grants to people whose bodies or tissues have contributed to biomedical research without compensation (and particularly the ones who were experimented on without consent) and their descendants. So at least some people are trying to make things right.
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Due to my moderately embarrassing obsession with Showtime's lavishly ridiculous pseudohistorical drama The Borgias, and also because it's free on Kindle, I read Rafael Sabatini's The Life of Cesare Borgia. Rafael Sabatini is better known for writing swashbucklery novels such as Captain Blood--yes, the one that was made into an Errol Flynn movie.

This book was written in 1912, which means it is adorably overwritten, and full of bits in foreign languages that aren't translated and Mr. Sabatini's personal opinions on everything. Mr. Sabatini has ALL THE FEELINGS about the Borgias and the way they have been treated historically, so this book really is not so much a chronicle of the life of Cesare Borgia as it is a massive takedown of everything that had ever been written about any of the Borgias prior to 1912.

One of the things that amused me about this book is that Mr. Sabatini either really wants to be Cesare or, possibly, just really wants Cesare. I was not expecting this because the only supposed portrait of the real Cesare Borgia I have ever seen is this:



Which, seriously, look at that fuckin' Hohenzollern chin. Do not want. But it appears Mr. Sabatini, through a time warp of some sort, has been watching the same Cesare Borgia that I've been watching on Showtime, which is this one:



or, y'know, possibly this one:



Style tip, Mr. Sabatini: It is not necessary to reference "the duke's lithe and comely body" or even call him "the handsome young duke" at every opportunity, particularly when you are talking about, like, military strategy and stuff. And it is really not the standard way of referring to historical persons in nonfiction accounts, no matter how sexy they were (although my job might be more entertaining if it were).

Mr. Sabatini's gigantic mancrush on Cesare aside, the book provided much entertaining information about how generally fucked up the Cinquecento was, and as far as I know, some of it may even have been accurate! Most of the rest of it basically boils down to whining "THEY WEREN'T THAT BAD, YOU GUYS, STOP BEING SO MEAN" but in poncy 1912 diction. He makes Roderigo Borgia, better known as Pope Alexander VI, sound kind of like President Obama: most of the stuff that sucked about him is actually the exact same stuff that sucked about pretty much everyone with political power at that time, but he had a streak of not being quite as bigoted and hateful and anti-science as a lot of his political opponents, so there was a lot of screaming about how he was a JEWISH MUSLIM PAGAN SATANIST because that totally makes sense. According to Sabatini, Roderigo's main mark against him as Pope was that he was just too effective at using the Papacy to build up a worldly dynasty for his children, which was actually something the last several Popes had been trying to do; they were just all bad at it. He also did ~terrible~ things like refrain from kicking the Jews out of Rome, allow a Muslim prince to hang out in Italy for years, and, in a heretical display of believing in science, send physicians instead of priests to investigate a claim of stigmata.

Lucrezia Borgia is not in this narrative all that much because, according to Sabatini, in real life she was actually wicked boring and didn't do all that much. I think I like fictional dropping-light-fixtures-on-people Lucrezia better. However, Caterina Sforza was genuinely a BAMF, and was known as the "Tigress of Forli" for her military adventures, so she shows up a lot and reading about her is lots of fun.

Overall, not quite as quaintly lolarious as anything by Montague Summers, but much more in English.
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So, while I was reading The Big Short, which I had borrowed from my father, who is an insurance executive, I told Paul, who used to be a Merrill Lynch executive, about it, and Paul lent me a gigantic stack of books from his Big Business Behaving Badly shelf. So you may be seeing a number of reviews of finance/big business books from me in the near future.

This week, I read Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, also by Michael Lewis. This one is partly a memoir of Mr. Lewis' short stint at the investment bank Salomon Brothers for a few years in the eighties, and partly an investigation of everything that was ridiculous about Salomon Brothers over the course of a few decades, but mostly the eighties.

Salomon Brothers, in the eighties, was apparently so ridiculous that Michael Lewis not only got a job there, but did really well, despite not really understanding much of what he was doing. According to himself, Michael Lewis got his undergraduate degree in art history from Princeton, got a master's degree in economics because that was the only degree investment banks accepted even when the jobs didn't have anything to do with knowing economic theory, landed a job at Salomon Brothers after talking to some guy's wife at a benefit dinner, and spent most of his time at the firm trying to copy other successful people and not usually having any idea what he was doing until after he'd been doing it for several months. He was a bond salesman, and apparently, for a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers in the eighties, actual knowledge of the markets was helpful, but optional. Sitting close to someone else who understood the markets and whose lines you could parrot was good enough, or else you could sell what the traders told you to sell and end up with angry customers but much acclaim within the firm (apparently, customer service was low on the firm's priority list). Beyond a reasonable level of general intelligence, what Salomon Brothers really seemed to require from its employees was the ability to take a lot of abuse. If you took enough abuse, you would be allowed to start dishing it out.

Lewis' portrait of the sociology and politics of Salomon Brothers is somewhere between hilarious and depressing. On the depressing end, it was all hugely dysfunctional: the interdepartmental backstabbing eventually led the firm to be unable to compete with other firms because it was too busy competing with itself. It was also discriminatory, with female trainees being disproportionately assigned to departments with little prestige and subject to harassment, and Wall Street in general being so WASPy that Salomon Brothers was considered positively ethnic for being run by Italians and Jews. On the hilarious end was the hierarchy of respect: trainees, at the lowest level, were ignored; geeks, the lowest level of people doing work, were roundly abused; in the middle, you might get called by your real name and left alone for a bit; and if you were a success, one of the managers would convey upon you the title of Big Swinging Dick. He also gives a pretty spot-on description of Fuckspeak, which is the dialect used by guys in finance to show how in charge they are.

With the exception of John Gutfreund, Salomon's eminently weird CEO, many of the colorful characters in this book are known by outlandish pseudonyms, such as "the Human Piranha." There is also a character known only as "the opportunist," who tried to claim credit for a new warrant deal that the author and one of his colleagues designed. While the opportunist is not a particularly colorful character, his plotline is one of the most deliciously funny in the book, as he inspires our author to hatch an elaborate revenge plot. This plotline stuck out at me partly because it was hilarious but also partly because it really was one of the few parts of the book where Mr. Lewis was actually being an active sort of character; in much of the rest of the book he is basically observing and having weird shit happen to him, which I suppose is sort of the point.

The climax of the book, inasmuch as there is one, is the stock market crash of October 19, 1987. Shortly after this, it appears that Mr. Lewis decided to get out of finance and write snarky books about it instead, which I think was a good choice.

What I mostly got out of this book was: Man, I am glad I'm not a bond salesman; I would be balls awful at it. Apparently, it mostly involves cold-calling people and trying to talk them into buying things they don't want to buy, being stuffed in a noisy room with a hundred insufferable finance dudes on phones all day long, and being okay with people shouting at you and throwing phones at your head. I hate phones and do not have the constitution to handle any of those things. So I think I will stick to quietly reading about finance in my room and being poor.
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
Elongated esses in Ye Olde Fashioned Typefaces will never be not amusing.

In my collection on Books Given To Me By My Mom's Friends (Who All Inexplicably Think I'm Brilliant Or Something; Please Do Not Enlighten Them On This Matter) I have another book from Ellen, the lovely lady who gave me the biography of Gertrude Bell I read earlier this year and that book  on museums stealing shit. This one is called God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible and I have had it sitting around for years. Ellen gave it to me shortly after I read Alister McGrath's In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Shaped a Nation, a Language and a Culture, which, ironically, is the second thing that shows up on amazon.com if you search for "God's Secretaries." Since I bought and read In the Beginning when I went to London in my junior year of high school, we can deduce that I have had this book sitting around for a shamefully long time.

This book has good points and bad points, which can be summed up roughly as follows:
GOOD POINTS: This book provides fascinating historical background on the culture and politics of the Jacobean court, a lot of biographical information about the translators, and some really fascinating (if you're a huge dork like me) insight into the administrative and organizational aspects of producing a Bible translation by committee.
BAD POINTS: This book is sufficiently not actually about the translation itself that when the author does start actually quoting from the JKV Bible and offering discussion and opinions about the word and syntax choices of the text you end up going "d00d I think you have gotten really off track please get back to the stuff this book is actually about." This is exacerbated in that this guy is clearly a solid historian but not much of a linguist, so his discussion over syntactical choices basically consists of giving the KJV verse next to two or three other Bible translations of the same verse and going "Man, aren't they clunky?" and possibly throwing a couple of poetry-criticism buzzwords in for scholarly flavor. I may be jaded on this point, however, because In the Beginning does have a much more textual/linguistic focus overall and so I had rather higher standards for Learning Something New in that regard than was going to be provided in a 250-page history book anyway.

I still overall really liked this one, because the world of the Translators (it was capitalized back then) is one I am not as familiar with as I should be, and the Jacobean court was just a freakin' weird place. The sectarian/theological squabbles of all these once-Super Important Church Guys are kind of hilarious to read about, and Adam Nicholson (that's the author) really shines the most when essentially acting as a gossip columnist for five-hundred-year-old petty Mean Girl shit (or Mean Priest shit, as the case may be), enlivened by extensive primary documentation (with delightful early sixteenth century spellings!) of so-and-so being totally not best friends anymore with such-and-such.

On the totally opposite end of the "important things" spectrum, it was interesting to get a good perspective on the Separatist cell that would become the Pilgrim Father from the point of view of the Establishment that they were being all Persecuted by, because it turns out that the Crown actually considered everything to be quite peaceful at the time and went relatively easy on the Pilgrims, being, at best, mildly annoyed that they had to put in the effort to deal with them at all, but, y'know, you can't totally ignore the few remaining uncooperative fringe groups, powerless as they may be, as long as they are still being uncooperative. They were like the least important people in all of England, which was totally taking a break from the religious unrest and persecution thing.

Also: lots of discussion of ROYAL BUDGETS. Due to recent US news and asshaberdashery, I am lately finding discussion of other governments' budgets and financial problems unendingly fascinating, so I really was sitting there on the T all last week totally glued to this book being like "F***ING BUDGETS, MAN, AWESOME. THIS IS SUPER DRAMATIC!!" Other readers may feel differently.

Basically, I think this book was great in every respect except its discussion of the actual King James Bible. Oops?
bloodygranuaile: (Default)

Earlier this year I read and reviewed a book called Loot, which was about museums and theft and stuff. My mom (hi Mom!) sent the review to the family friend who gave me the book for graduation (hi Ellen!). Ellen sent me a nice email, a newspaper clipping about the Getty sharing pieces with Italy and the prosecution of Marian True, and another book, because she is awesome.

The book was Janet Wallach's Desert Queen, a biography of Gertrude Bell. Shamefully, I had never heard of Gertrude Bell before I was given this book, and so I had no idea who she was. Apparently, she was the “uncrowned Queen of Iraq”--the daughter of a rich industrialist, the first woman ever to obtain a history degree at Oxford, the first woman to serve in the British Empire's political bureau (her title was “Oriental Secretary”), a British spy during the First World War, an archaeologist, the first Westerner to penetrate the Arabian desert, and a key player in the formation of the state of Iraq. She was a very busy and smart lady, basically. Despite working for the British Empire (the mightiest and most elitist Empire in the history of imperialism! And that's saying something!) and occasionally campaigning against the suffragist movement (WTF?!)*, she was fascinating to read about and I found her a rather inspiring figure, particularly for those of us who are wasting some years after college floating around aimlessly wondering how, exactly, our current day jobs are going to help us get all famous and accomplished and feeling guilty that Mary Shelley had written and published Frankenstein by our age. Or perhaps that is just me.

Anyway. After graduating from Oxford, Gertrude “came out” and did her three “seasons” like a proper Victorian lady, where she utterly failed to secure any marriage prospects, due to her constant opinionatedness and failure to defer to men's opinions and bat her eyelashes or whatever subservient shit she was supposed to do to prop up the fragile egos of well-bred young British gentlemen. The only people she got along with were diplomats and officials several decades her senior, from whom she learned all sorts of stuff about the history and politics of various far-flung parts of the British Empire. After her seasons were up and she got bored of sitting around England being a wealthy spinster, Gertrude would take periodic long vacations around the world, as you did when you were a proper Victorian member of the leisure class. However, instead of going to tame little resorts in South America or wherever else her peers went, Gertrude most frequently leveraged her friendships with her diplomat relatives and acquaintances and went off to the Middle East, where she had real adventures, traipsing around the desert on camels and making friends with all the Arab sheikhs and excavating ancient Mesopotamian archaeological ruins. On one of these trips—taken to distract herself from grief after the death of her boyfriend, which to me sounds like something out of a bad novel, but whatever—she decided to go into the Arabian desert, where Westerners never went. This necessitated signing many waivers basically saying that she wasn't really going with the permission of the Turks or the British, they'd just given up trying to stop her, and if anything terrible happened to her, well, they'd warned her. On this trip Gertrude was indeed held prisoner for a month by Ibn Rashid in some ridiculously picturesque medieval city (the book has pictures)**, but was eventually let go unharmed.

This all turned out to be rather a good thing, because with Gertrude's habit of writing long and detailed letters to everyone she'd ever met, by the time World War One rolled around there were several connections of hers in the British diplomatic corps who were all full of helpful knowledge obtained from Gertrude's unofficial reports, and believed that she could be of even greater use if they made her write official reports about the Middle East, since she was at this point personal friends with all the nomadic tribal leaders whose names the rest of the Empire's Middle East officers didn't even know. So she went off to Cairo, and then Baghdad, and did research and visited all her old Arab friends and wrote thousands and thousands of pages on everything and everyone in the regions of Arabia and Mesopotamia. When the war ended, she continued to live in Baghdad, and made a lot of Arab friends and a lot of British enemies by being smart enough to drop the stuffy imperialist act for long enough to support the idea of an independent Arab nation-state of Iraq, realizing that if the British just moved in to become the new Turks except not Muslim, they would have a rebellion on their hands. Unfortunately, in the time it took for A.T. Wilson (a staunch imperialist, and her boss) to move out and Sir Percy Cox (who favored transition to independence) to move in, the situation had become even more volatile than when the war first ended. However, Gertrude and her buddies pulled off some amazing feats of diplomacy and networking (my dad would be super impressed), and managed to pull off a relatively peaceful transition from a British military occupation to a fairly functional independent-but-on-friendly-terms-with-Britain-so-they-could-use-their-petroleum Arab constitutional monarchy. This monarchy would not outlast its first king, because his successors were fairly useless with managing the diverse groups that were all living in the geographical entity of Iraq, but getting the state established instead of just annexing it was a pretty impressive feat of statesmanship and a fascinating, fascinating story.

One thing I really like about this biography was that it has an almost novel-like level of characterization for Gertrude and her buddies, due to Gertrude's amazing volume of letters and diaries. We aren't trying to piece together the bits of her private life from public records, and we almost never have to guess what Gertrude's thoughts or feelings on something were. We are treated to ridiculously detailed notes on Gertrude's and some other people's exact thoughts and feelings, and a wealth of detail on exactly who said what to whom and where, and who wore what to what function, and what food was served at which dinner party or in which sheikh's tent. While this could have devolved into a morass of useless detail, Ms. Wallach's research and writing is discerning enough that it instead paints a brilliant picture of 1920s-era Baghdad (among other times and places both Eastern, Western, and weirdly mixed) that did as much to transport me away from myself as the most well-done epic fantasy. In the freezing train cars of the Worcester-Framingham line, which is where I read most of the book, I felt  myself in the unbearable heat of Baghdad in July, where social events happen at six a.m. because that is the only time it is cool enough for people to put clothes on and go outside and the British ladies wear veils of mosquito netting over their fashionable European dresses and big hats. My only stylistic issue is that Ms. Wallach refers to a few too many instances of Gertrude's writing things as “scrawling,” which has left me desperately curious about how bad her handwriting actually was, and if there is a noticeable difference in her letters and diaries between “written” and “scrawled” matter.

Anyway, I found this both to be a really entertaining read and extremely educational (my World War One-era history is sadly lacking, as is my Middle Eastern). I also found it quite thought-provoking; it's easy to be like “Bah, the British Empire sucked” and “Bah, Iraq is all fucked up” and “Yay, Gertrude broke the rules like nobody's business,” but how do you put them all together? You get a much more nuanced look at how different factions of the British Empire dealt with new territories once the whole independence thing started to catch on, and Gertrude herself is a very interesting character due to her combination of being whip-smart and not taking any shit from anybody, and her distinctly upper-class British conservative roots. It also answers the “What were they thinking?” question that has bugged me ever since I learned that Iraq is basically made out of three random ethnic groups who don't get along—it turns out they were thinking a lot of really complicated things, some of which were ridiculous, and some of which were not.

I feel like there was something else I had wanted to say that I wrote in my first draft of this review, but I can't remember what it is. Yes, this is the second time I had to write this review. If you are interested my the trials and tribulations of attempting to LJ on the MBTA, it is here.

*I don't know if this makes it any better, but Gertrude's opposition to the suffrage movement seems more classist than the subservient self-loathing of a lot of the female anti-suffragists (particularly the ones that bothered being anti-suffragists before the Pankhursts). Gertrude was an upper-class lady and as such didn't see voting as a right, because upper-class Brits didn't really believe in fundamental human rights; they believed in rights of status/earned rights (and believed them to be the same thing, of course).  As upper-class twits, many of them also found the Pankhurts' methods vulgar and shocking and other such upper-class-twitty expressions of scandalizedness (scandalization? I cannot word today). Gertrude's writings seem to focus on the notion that British women weren't educated enough to vote well. Considering her efforts to secure the education of Iraqi women, I am assuming that she thought that women's suffrage was something that could eventually be acceptable? Although I wonder as to her opinions of the voting habits of England's lower-class men.

**What we get of the history of the power struggles within the Rashid family and the feud between the Rashids and the Sauds made me really, really want to learn more, and possibly for it to be turned into a ridiculously melodramatic costume drama like The Borgias. Except I'm not sure you could even begin to tell this story without bringing up probably well-founded charges of Orientalism, because it sounds like the Rashids made the Borgias look like they weren't even trying to be fucked up. Reading about them made me get the opening number from Aladdin stuck in my head. “Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face,” indeed.

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