Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Shaping of a Life, by Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle is a writer whom I’ve never read, but have often seen quoted and referred to by others.  Picking up her memoir as the first thing I read by her may have been an odd way to go about it, since this memoir of her early years assumes that the reader is familiar with Tickle’s career as a writer about religion, one whose books have done much to introduce American Protestant readers to the ancient Christian contemplative traditions and spiritual practices.  The memoir has the feel of someone trying to explain “This is how I got from where I started to where I am today,” which is why it might hold most interest for those already familiar with the author’s work.

 As a stand-alone memoir, it was interesting to read, though the formality of Tickle’s language made it feel somewhat distant compared the very intimate, confessional memoirs I’m used to reading by women of my own generation (I believe Tickle is now in her 70s). It’s a spiritual memoir, but a very unemotional one, lacking much in the way of sin, repentance, or epiphanies. Rather, it’s a memoir of small moments in a young woman’s life (it covers the years from childhood through college, marriage and young motherhood) that nudged her towards an appreciation of prayer, meditation, and liturgy. 

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The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory

There’s just nothing I love better than when  historical novelist can pull out a character you didn’t know much about from history, especially a character who’s not really all that sympathetic and likeable, and bring that person vividly to life on the page. That’s what Philippa Gregory does brilliantly in The Red Queen, the second of her new series about the Wars of the Roses (the first was The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville).

While The White Queen was about a commoner who unexpectedly becomes a queen, The Red Queen is the story of Margaret Beaufort, a noblewoman who clings fiercely to the belief that her destiny is to be queen — or, at least, Queen Mother.  Margaret, a passionately devout and completely self-centred little girl, is raised to believe that the future of the House of Lancaster just might be in her womb, and even when her son, Henry Tudor, seems a long, long way from ever sitting on England’s throne, she continues to believe in her destiny and shapes her whole life around making it come true.

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The Captive Queen, by Alison Weir

Having  just finished reading a chunk of Serious Nonfiction History by Alison Weir, I wanted to relax with some fun “we can’t really know exactly what happened so let’s just take our best guess and make a good story out of it,” historical fiction. Which also, not coincidentally, happened to be by Alison Weir. Maybe she thinks writing historical fiction is a nice break too.

The Captive Queen tells the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, from her first meeting with the future Henry II of England, through the golden years of their marriage, her long captivity after she participates in her sons’ rebellion against Henry, and ends with a glimpse of her life after Henry’s death. This same territory has been travelled by my favourite historical novelist, Sharon Kay Penman, in her latest trilogy, and I think Penman does it better, coming a little closer to capturing the emotional pathos of  a marriage that started with such passion and promise, and ended so very, very badly.

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Mistress of the Monarchy, by Alison Weir

This was the one nonfiction book I tackled along with a lot of great novels this summer — a biography of Katherine Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV.  I read Anya Seton’s historical novel Katherine, about Katherine Swynford, years ago.  So did Alison Weir, and she pays tribute to the novel in this biography, in which she does an impressive job of unearthing information about a woman on whom there is very little direct historical record.

Like many medieval women (and women of other eras) Katherine Swynford is known to us only because of her connection to a famous man, John of Gaunt, and references to her are found, often in passing, in historical documents pertaining to him.  This provides an intriguing challenge for the biographer, who has to piece together a picture of her life from admittedly sketchy sources.  While the book was interesting in that way, it vividly illustrated for me why I prefer reading historical fiction to straight biography, especially when as little is known about the subject as in this case.

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