Category Archives: Nonfiction — general

Charlotte and Leopold, by James Chambers

charlotteandleopoldFor anyone, like me, who watched the series Victoria and wondered if there was a reason why Uncle Leopold (king of Belgium, and uncle to both Victoria and her husband Albert) was so over-invested in Victoria’s life and her marriage, this nonfiction book provides the backstory you may not have known. (Of course, if you’re a hardcore 19th-century European history buff, you already knew this story, but I’ll freely admit I didn’t).

20 years before Victoria ascended the throne, there was another young princess who was far more directly in line for the throne, who was the most popular member of the then-quite-unpopular British royal family, and whose sensible arranged marriage to a Coburg prince turned into a deep romance. The princess was Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent (later George IV), and in the large family of King George III which produced many illegitimate grandchildren but hardly any legitimate ones, she was the daughter of the heir and herself the heir apparent. Her marriage to the Coburg prince Leopold quickly led to a pregnancy, and everything seemed to be going smoothly until Charlotte died in childbirth bearing a stillborn son. The subsequent scramble to see which of the heirs to the throne could produce a viable heir led quite directly to the birth of Victoria, and the grieving Leopold spent much of the rest of his eventful life guiding the education and career of his niece.

This book tells of Charlotte’s childhood, her parents’ famously unhappy marriage and how she was used as a political pawn, her own marriage, and then Leopold’s life after her death. It was very informative and interesting, but I do have to add that it is the only audiobook I almost gave up on because the narrator’s voice annoyed me so much. It wasn’t so much Jilly Bond’s regular narrating voice, which was sort of crisp-English-RP and fairly unobjectionable — it was the voice she used when quoting any of Charlotte’s words or writing, which was this awful high-pitched simper with a very obvious lisp. I’m glad I stuck with the book, but the Charlotte-voice irritated me throughout, and I really wish the narrator had made a different choice, since it made the character I was supposed to be most invested in the most annoying to listen to.

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Never Caught, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

nevercaughtI’ve been intrigued by the story of Ona Judge ever since I first heard of this enslaved woman who escaped from George and Martha Washington and was hunted down by them for the rest of their lives (she long outlived them). The book’s title makes it clear there’s no real suspense about how the story ended: they never recaptured her, and while Ona Judge’s life was hard, she lived decades as a free woman.

I listened to this audiobook during a long day of driving from Memphis, Tennessee to Williamsburg, Virginia. It was an interested setting to be listening to this while driving through the American South, an area where the scars of slavery are by no means healed and where slave-owners like the Washingtons are still honoured for their accomplishments while the enslaved people who built their plantations and their fortunes are largely forgotten. I was listening to this while I drove past a sign for a hotel named after Martha Washington, and I thought, “Where is anything named after Ona Judge? Why don’t we celebrate the people who fought so hard for their own and others’ freedom?”

Ona Judge lived a life of poverty and hardship after her escape — in fact, it would be possible for someone to argue that her relatives who remained in captivity to the Washingtons had objectively “easier” lives in some ways, in terms of access to food and shelter. But it’s telling that Judge never once considered returning to slavery — nor did, to my knowledge, any of the thousands who escaped slavery, despite the hardship of their free lives. It reminded me very much of a scene from the movie Gandhi where one of the British officials warns the Indian independence leaders that they face “chaos” post-independence and Gandhi says:”There is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.” (I don’t know if this is based on an actual Gandhi quote, but it certainly sounds like a sentiment he would have agreed with). Likewise, the people who escaped chattel slavery preferred the hardships and uncertainties of freedom to being someone else’s property — and more of their names should be known and celebrated for this.

This was a very enlightening and important book.

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A Land as God Made it, by James Horn

landasgodmadeitI read this as part of my research for the trilogy I’m writing, and much like Savage Kingdom and Pocohantas, it gives a good overview of the Jamestown, Virginia colonial experiment, which nearly ended in disaster many times. Like many recent accounts of English colonization in North America, this book is unsparing about the colonists’ attitude towards the native population and very much aware of the exploitative nature of English settlement, and the indigenous people are portrayed with greater understanding and sympathy than might have been the case in an earlier story about the “birth of America.” Good,

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Fascism: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright

fascismIf anybody is qualified to talk about twentieth-century fascism, it’s Madeleine Albright, both from the perspective of her personal life experience and from her professional experience. As a child growing up in Czechoslovakia, her family had to leave their home country twice because of dictators — first during the Nazi takeover, because of her father’s ties to the previous Czech government (the family was also Jewish, but converted to Catholicism during the war; Albright and her siblings were raised not knowing about their Jewish heritage). Then, after returning to postwar Czechoslovakia from the UK, they moved to the US after the Communist takeover of their country.

Later, of course, Albright famously became the U.S.’s first woman Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. Working in that key role in the turbulent world of the 1990s, she witnessed first-hand the fall of the Soviet Communist system and the regimes that have risen to replace it. She’s had the ideal life experience to be able to analyze how the fascist dictatorships of the 1930s and the aftermath of the Second World War led to the world we see today, where the rising tide of right-wing populism threatens a new wave of fascism.

Albright analyzes many different twentieth and early twenty-first century totalitarian movements to see what their roots are and what they have in common. One thing that surprised me is that she doesn’t give a particularly specific ideological definition of what she means by fascism. Beginning in the 1920s and 30s, she explores the standard fascist dictators of the era — Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco — but in many cases lumps Stalin’s rule of the USSR into the same category, despite the differing ideological roots. Later, she does the same with the Kim dynasty in North Korea, so clearly her definition of fascism has more to do with totalitarian dictatorship rather than with whether a government is on the left or on the right of the political spectrum.

Naturally, she has some warning notes to sound about some of the populist movements today that show tendencies towards totalitarianism, and it would be great if her warnings could be heeded.

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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

zealotIt’s been a long time (like 10+ years) since I went on a binge of reading a lot of books from a lot of different perspectives about the historical Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, Jesus as seen through different lenses, etc etc etc. That was something I thought and read a lot about in the early 2000s and had kind of moved on from (not from Jesus, obviously, but from various historical and textual analyses of who he “really” was). However, I was intrigued by the fact that Zealot is written by Reza Aslan, who I’ve read before in his book about the founding of Islam, and I was curious about what a Muslim writer who briefly flirted with evangelical Christianity in his youth might have to say about Jesus against the background of Jewish politics in the first century.

Zealot has quite a lot to say — not just about Jesus, but about Judaism under Roman occupation before Jesus’ time, and the development of early Christianity afterwards. The book spans about 200 years of history, and its real invaluable contribution to popular thinking about Jesus is, I believe, to clearly centre the life of Jesus in the political mileu of his time. Modern readers, especially devout Christians who are so steeped in the story we think we know it, often read about Jesus in an ahistorical, apolitical way, extracting timeless truths from his teachings while forgetting that he lived in a very specific time and place. Aslan’s overview of that time and place, and the various movements that fought to free the Jewish nation from Roman control during that time, is extremely helpful in contextualizing Jesus, his movement, and his followers.

When Aslan turns from that broader historical context to analyzing the actual words and actions of Jesus insofar as we can know them, he commits the same fault regularly committed by both conservative Christians and liberal scholars. He has a pre-ordained notion of who Jesus was (based on his reading of the historical context) — in this case, a “zealot,” by which he means not a member of the later Zealot party, but a Jewish nationalist primarily focused on independence from Rome and on declaring himself king of a new Jewish nation, and willing to support the use of violence to achieve that end. With that “Jesus” firmly in mind, he interprets the Gospel accounts through that lens, accepting as authentic any sayings or actions attributed to Jesus that support this reading, and dismissing as later inventions of the Gospel writers any that don’t. As with any attempt to fit Jesus into a specific writer’s mold — whether that of Jewish revolutionary or peace-loving hippie or divine being who came only to bring something called “salvation” — this requires the writer to dismiss quite a lot of sayings that don’t fit the picture — not on any basis of authenticity that can be determined from within the text itself, but on whether or not it fits the picture that’s being painted. This leads Aslan to look at a single verse or scene from the gospels — for example, Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth — and dismiss one element of the scene as being pure fiction while taking another as absolutely central to his thesis, without needing to explain why one part of the text should be privileged over another.

So I was not convinced by Aslan’s portrait of Jesus as a violent revolutionary, or as a Jewish nationalist whose “love your enemies” was only directed towards conflict with other Jews, not towards the Gentiles whom he certainly must have hated. But I did find some of the historical context he provides a useful corrective to a Christian vision of Jesus that strays from the truth too far in the opposite direction — making Jesus a non-Jewish, “universal” figure utterly divorced from the turbulent time and place in which he lived, uttering universal precepts in no way influenced by the world around him. The “real” Jesus of the Gospels is, as always, more complicated and difficult to define than any of these attempts to put him in a neat box.

 

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Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, by Camille Townsend

pocahantasI guess it’s kind of inevitable that while I’m working on a novel, this book blog is going to reflect some of the reading I’m doing as part of my research process. Along with novels set in the early 17th century, I have of course been reading a lot of non-fiction, and while many of these are books I don’t bother to review because I only dip into them for the sections that are relevant to what I want to learn, one occasionally comes along that I read cover-to-cover because it’s fascinating in its own right.

Such a book is Camille Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, which I discovered while trying to learn more about First Nations-settler relations in the early colonial period. Townsend carefully examines all the historical accounts relating to Pocahontas and constructs a picture of what her life might have been like and what her attitude may have been towards the English settler community with whom she interacted and into which she eventually married. The legendary aspects of her relationship with Captain John Smith are ruthlessly debunked from primary sources, and Townsend explores what we know of her relationship with the English settler she eventually did marry, John Rolfe. Townsend’s argument is that, while in the lack of primary documents from Pocahontas herself we can never be entirely sure of her perspective, it is most likely that she viewed herself as a royal ambassador from her people to the English, making a political marriage that she hoped would improve relations between Powhatan’s people and the colonizers.

I found this an intriguing and well-researched account of a woman whose short life has been so mythologized that we (especially those of us who are descendents of settlers) may find it hard to imagine who she was and how she really saw herself, her people, and her role in the world. We can never know for certain, but Townsend’s work does a very good job of reconstructing all the possibilities, based on what we do know from surviving documents of the time.

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All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister

singleladiesThis book had been on my to-read list for so long I’d actually forgotten why I wanted to read it when I noticed my library had an e-copy available to download. I thought it was going to be sort of a historical overview of single women and the contribution they’d made to (American) society, whereas it turns out it’s more of an exploration of what’s happening in contemporary American culture as more and more women are either delaying marriage or not marrying altogether. There were some looks back at historical precedent, famous unmarried women from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which of course I found fascinating. Mostly though, this is an exploration of a sociological phenomenon that’s been on the rise throughout mine and author Traister’s lifetime. Fewer and later marriages, more economic independence for (some, mostly white) women, more women heading single-parent families (sometimes by choice and sometimes of necessity), more women choosing not to have children altogether — all these things together, all increasing over the past three or four decades, is inevitably going to lead to huge demographic and cultural changes. Traister examines these trends, their causes and some of the possible consequences, in a tone that acknowledges the complexity but is mainly positive about a world in which, for the first time, many women have a real choice about whether or not they want to marry and have families, and whether those two things need to be linked in the ways we’ve always assumed.

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