Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Books I Wish I Had Time to Read - new and upcoming 2016

Am getting lots of information about interesting books these days and cannot get to them all. However, you bright things out there may be able to enjoy them. Below please find the offerings of a few publishers or authors that I wish I had time to read:

Columbia University Press
Published in 2012, this title just won CUP's Distinguished Book Award. From the CUP website description of this book:
"Wael B. Hallaq boldly argues that the 'Islamic state,' judged by any standard definition of what the modern state represents, is both impossible and inherently self-contradictory. Comparing the legal, political, moral, and constitutional histories of premodern Islam and Euro-America, he finds the adoption and practice of the modern state to be highly problematic for modern Muslims. He also critiques more expansively modernity's moral predicament, which renders impossible any project resting solely on ethical foundations.

The modern state not only suffers from serious legal, political, and constitutional issues, Hallaq argues, but also, by its very nature, fashions a subject inconsistent with what it means to be, or to live as, a Muslim. By Islamic standards, the state's technologies of the self are severely lacking in moral substance, and today's Islamic state, as Hallaq shows, has done little to advance an acceptable form of genuine Shari'a governance. The Islamists' constitutional battles in Egypt and Pakistan, the Islamic legal and political failures of the Iranian Revolution, and similar disappointments underscore this fact. Nevertheless, the state remains the favored template of the Islamists and the ulama (Muslim clergymen). Providing Muslims with a path toward realizing the good life, Hallaq turns to the rich moral resources of Isl...(continued on CUP website)"
Knopf Doubleday, a division of Random House
From the promo materials:
In the late 1890s, Mark Twain made the terrible mistake of pouring his and his wife’s life savings into a publishing company. Needless to say, they lost everything. At the peak of his fame, Twain went bankrupt and at risk of losing control of his most beloved masterpieces, such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, decided to pay the debts quickly by embarking on a round-the-world speaking tour. Along the way, Twain delivered one hundred and twenty-two standup comedy performances — the greatest hits of his career in a ninety-minute one-man show — across the USA in places such as Butte and Spokane, and on to Australia, New Zealand, India, Ceylon and South Africa. The performances were funny, poignant, strangely thought-provoking, and wildly popular. No American author had ever talked his way around the world. And on the cusp of success, his family suffered a horrific tragedy, but Twain survived and returned triumphant to New York City in 1900. [Aside: Richard Zacks sounds a bit of a character, too.]See the website blurb

Penguin Random House
From the promo:
For readers of Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, and Lena Dunham, 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL is a dark, hilarious, acutely written collection of vignettes which skewers our body image-obsessed culture while simultaneously delivering a tender, sympathetic portrait of a difficult but unforgettable woman whose lifelong struggle to lose weight comes at a high cost.
Caustic, hilarious, and heartbreaking, 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL introduces Mona Awad as a major literary talent. From the website blurb



Other Press
From the promo lit:
This best-selling debut novel from one of France’s most exciting young writers is based on the true story of the 1949 disappearance of Air France’s Lockheed Constellation and its famous passengers. On October 27th, 1949, the newest crown jewel in the Air France fleet, the Constellation welcomed thirty-eight passengers aboard a flight from Paris to New York, including the world famous boxer Marcel Cerdan and virtuoso violinist Ginette Neveu. In his best-selling debut novel CONSTELLATION...Bosc is as a detective trying to solve a crime, drawing a spider web of connections that grows exponentially in spectrum; in telling these stories, Bosc brings us to the Italian-American mafia in pre-revolution Havana, to the private love letters of Édith Piaf, to the quickie divorces of the rich and famous in 1940s Reno, Nevada, to his own correspondence with the son of one of the Constellation’s victims.
Go to the website




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Monday, February 1, 2016

Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson

In this wonderfully dense slim novel Lena Andersson manages to encapsulate the intensely personal—the treatment of a woman writer in love with a famous painter who is uninterested in her—and broaden it to encompass larger political questions and concerns.
”[Are] we in fact not all to some extent utilitarians, that is consequentialists, that is, we judge things in terms of outcomes, even when we claim to be applying principles?...A consequentialist…is obliged to be against democracy if it turns out to have worse consequences than dictatorship. For her, there can be no intrinsic value in anything other than maximum well-being, whereas for the rights-based ethicist, intrinsic value is the only orientation point. The intrinsic value of freedom and autonomy.”
As it happens, this is precisely what I have been mulling over lately when considering the foreign affairs of nations. Andersson’s fascinating study on the monomaniacal intensity of a woman in a relationship she is not able to control, being the partner who cares too much and who therefore has less power, dovetails nicely with the direction of my reading and thinking. Part of the pleasure of this novel comes from listening to the undeniably realistic internal confabulations of a woman under the influence of an overwhelming attraction she cannot escape. We’ve all been there, to greater or lesser degrees. The pleasure and pain of an unrequited love is something none of us forget.
”Ester Nilsson…was a poet and essayist who lived by the understanding that the world was as she experienced it. Or to be more precise, that people were so constituted as to experience the world as it was, so long as they did not let their attention wander, or lie to themselves. The subjective was the objective, and the objective was the subjective.”
What a remarkable idea, and since it is expressed on the first page of the novel, we are obliged to apply its principle throughout, finding plenty of contradictions in her approach since her passionate though unrequited love clearly colors her reality. She experiences “willful disregard” for facts. The obsessive circuit of her rehashing of events and conversations leads her to conclude that the object of her attention does not love her but the slightest attention on his part can restart the destructive obsessive cycle all over again.

At one point Ester travels to Paris in the spring to see if she can break the cycle and look at the world anew but “Paris didn’t help. Nothing helped you still had yourself with you.” Truer words… We feel her pain. Shortly after her return to Stockholm she calls her ex-boyfriend, the one she threw over when she became obsessed with the artist she is pursuing. We are not exactly sure why she calls her old boyfriend, Per, and neither is she. Per is clearly in the weaker position of the relationship, as he loves her more. After her call, Per’s obsession with Ester begins anew, with Per calling her twice a day, culminating in Per’s shrill denunciation of her disturbing his hard-won equilibrium after her departure last time. This portion of the novel recalls perfectly the novel Climates, André Maurois’s depiction of a trio of loves, all unrequited. We create our own climate in the atmosphere of our minds. Other people may or may not feel comfortable in that climate.

Ester had a group of women friends with whom she shared the story of her obsession, and they ended up telling her “he’s just not that into you.” She turns her back on them since they clearly do not understand. As the finish of the novel approached, we savor the final pages, sure that some resolution is imminent. The reader finds oneself simultaneously annoyed with Ester for her blindness and outraged by Hugo, the object of her affection, for his brutish manipulation of Ester.

Andersson draws back to show the larger political picture once again at the end of the novel. Hugo trots out the usual tired tropes about U.S. imperialism in the world:
"He often talked like that, she noted, about nobody doing anything, saying anything, having the guts for anything. They were all morally corrupt, bankrupt and cowardly...Ester looked at Hugo. This body and this consciousness were what she had been yearning for, all day every day for almost a year and four months…How is it, she asked, that only Westerners have to answer for their actions and ideas, not other people?"
Ester's bewilderment and disgust at this point are very nearly enough to tip her into recognition of her delusions. Undoubtedly a great deal of Ester’s obsessive love was her own construction of what Hugo’s ideas as an artist represented. Hugo was a construct, and what she imagined did not exist outside of her own mind.

The final few pages of the novel are a worthy finish to a novel of obsessive love, reading like a thriller of the heart. "'Best of luck, then', he said...'Best of luck, then', she thought, a phrase with all the qualities of a murder weapon", words that drive a stake through the notion of love. But it isn’t over even then. She still needed final confirmation.

A terrific novel that brings into relief human capability and culpability, Willful Disregard won the 2014 August Prize awarded by the Swedish Publisher’s Association, and the Literature Prize given by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. Translated into twelve languages, it was published in English in Britain in 2015. It was developed into a screenplay in Sweden and was performed on a minimalist stage in 2015 with a cast of five. It is being released in the United States this week by Other Press.


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Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict by Austin Reed, edited by Caleb Smith

There can be no doubt that this remarkable document uncovered and authenticated recently by a team led by Caleb Smith at Yale University is something altogether new in the annals of prison literature. A young free black inmate of New York’s prison system, ten years old at first incarceration in 1833, shares his history in rich detail and with great storytelling skill.

If at first I thought this might be a story of the wrongly accused—the boy was only ten years old!—I was soon disabused of that idea, given Austin Reed’s own testimony that his mother was despairing of his precocious criminality and bad habits, sending him out to be indentured to a farmer some distance into the country from the corrupting influence of city life Rochester, N.Y. Within days Reed had made that farmer angry enough to give him the whip, at which point Reed threw himself on the mercy and tender attentions of another nearby farmhouse, who promptly made an effort to bring the boy back to his home in Rochester again, to the near-suicidal despair of Reed’s mother.

It turns out that Reed’s sister was as indignant as Reed himself was about the whipping, and stirred the boy to take a pistol and a knife to that angry farmer who initially indentured him. Thus attempted murder must be considered when considering his case, and though the murder failed, Reed did manage to light the farmer’s barn and house on fire, burning it nearly to the ground if his own record is to be believed. That is how he was put into the prison system the first time. (Here I will admit to an exceedingly strong hankering to know what became of the sister. If this were fiction, we could make something up. I want the nonfiction story of that strong-willed creature so filled with rage.)

What makes this work so thrilling to read is that the reader finds oneself taken with this “bright boy” despite his best efforts to complicate his life, forcing one to imagine the position and condition of a free black in a northern city before the Civil War, and examine what could cause such indignation on the part of the sister and the boy when authority of any kind attempted to constrain their unruly behaviors. When Reed tells us that being in the House of Refuge in New York City as a young boy taught him many scams and illicit behaviors of which he had been previously unaware, and to which he took like a duck to water, we shudder to think of what will become of him. So it is foretold that he was incarcerated most of his adult life for felonies and larcenies of all sorts.

An astonishing and full-throated defense of immigrant Irish we may never again hear and yet shows the depth of Reed’s feeling for those boys who, crushed like him by the “hand of oppression,” shared his cells:
“Poor Pat…shivering in poverty and clothed in rags of disgrace and shame, while freedom is planted deep in his breast…poor and helpless on these shores, with no one to extend them a hand…Yes, me brave Irish boys, me loves you till the day that I am laid cold under the sod, and I would let the last drop of this dark blood run and drain from these black veins of mine to rescue you from the hands of a full blooded Yankee…Reader, if you are on the right side of an Irishman, you have the best friend in the world.”

This beautifully written, edited, and annotated memoir of Austin Reed’s time in jail is revelatory for what it says of the cruelties and inconsistencies in the justice system, but it also gives an unforgettable glimpse into the mind of a black man in the system at the time. Prison “cut off from all virtue” a man who could only “sit brooding on vice and preparing for crime.” Fantastically detailed in places, the memoir recreates the adventures of a picaresque hero more usually found in the pages of a novel. Reed had many protectors and mentors during his time in prison, and due to his native intelligence, pride, and charm (and despite his crimes), managed to live out his years to old age. A letter he wrote to the prison system in 1895 is discussed in the Introduction.

While I have called this work a memoir, it is not a memoir in the usual sense. It is a personal history in the manner of literature at the time, and uses fictional devices and structure in places to make the story flow and involve readers. The prison warden also notes that Reed is “a most notorious liar…a deep knowing impudent and brazen-faced boy…” Inconsistencies between Reed's record and the researched history of the time suggests Reed took some liberties with the truth. Reed wanted the work published: he actively tried to make that happen at different stages in his life. Reed had a sensibility that reminds one of Iceberg Slim, another proud brother who had a strong sense of his own talents who used prison to learn many shortcuts to the life he wanted to live. Iceberg Slim also came to advise against a life of crime, but he could see the attractions of it, and the reasons for it, in the black community.

I cannot recommend this entrancing book more highly.


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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid

This ninth novel in the Tony Hill & Carol Jordan series written by Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid brings us a serial killer who preys on opinionated women who take principled stances embodying feminist ideals, e.g., outspoken against domestic violence, deadbeat dads, the living and work arrangements of serial rapists. The police at first dismiss the vituperative online trolls who respond to these womens' blogposts—"it is only words"--until some of those outspoken women end up dead.

Hill and Jordan are long-time McDermid subjects, and the stars of a BBC TV series called The Wire in the Blood, a popular six-season (2002-2008) police procedural starring Robson Green as Tony Hill and Hermione Norris as Carol Jordan. Every two years since the TV series finished, McDermid published another Hill & Jordan mystery. In all that time, Jordan had left the police force and has started drinking far too much far too often. This story began with Jordan refitting an old barn on the outskirts of Bradfield, Yorkshire to live in.

McDermid’s character of Tony Hill always seemed to me far less autistic than Robson Green’s interpretation. Hill does play computer games to give his subconscious time to develop ideas, and he does have a tendency to insert himself into Carol Jordan’s orbit. In this story, Hill intervenes in Jordan’s drinking habit, forcing her to recognize her dependency.

While Jordan is drying out, Hill suggests she think over a problem that so far has not been identified by anyone else as a problem: those outspoken women were dying, presumably at their own hand, in the manner of famous feminists who had committed suicide in the past. Each of the suicides even had pages of books written by the different women they were emulating…so many women, so many role models, different deaths but all with the same idea. It started out as a time-consuming mental activity to keep her from drinking and then links started to appear…

Insomuch as McDermid's crime series also employ elements of police procedurals, this is a delightful look at the top cops who have a meeting early in the action. They sound so much like a group of Shakespeare’s hags around a black, round-bellied pot hanging over a campfire one can practically hear the “Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble” refrain. The old white men discuss offering Jordan her own shop under their aegis but outside the shop. The team she ultimately assembles has some terrific, familiar characters.

One of those characters, a computer whiz from an immigrant family, is sleeping with a handsome but shallow fellow officer who is always seeking the best path to his own personal aggrandizement. When the computer whiz discovers her main squeeze is leaking information from her investigation, she takes the sweetest revenge—I laughed aloud to hear it. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but believe me, you won’t want to miss it, and you wouldn’t want it to happen to you.

McDermid is so smooth and natural in her writing by now in her Gold Dagger Award-winning career that she makes churning out these psychologically dense personality profiles look easy. Scottish by birth, McDermid now splits her time each year between South Manchester and Edinburgh, where lives with her partner and her son. She began as a journalist and playwright and, inspired by American women crime writers including Sara Paretsky, she developed her own crime-writing style. If you have never seen her speak, you are in for a terrific treat. She has a big personality and clearly enjoys her work on most days. Just type in “Val McDermid interview” in YouTube’s search bar and you will hear many hours of fascinating stories, mostly true.

My personal favorite in these interviews is a short one in which McDermid is interviewing Sofie Gråbøl (embedded below), star of the Danish production of The Killing, a wildly popular multi-season TV hit throughout Europe. If you haven’t yet seen it, do not mistake the American re-do of the television screenplay for the original Danish production, which was mesmerizing. McDermid mentions the sweater Gråbøl wore in the show which became a hit also, spawning an industry.

Also note that one of McDermid’s most famous books, A Place of Execution, was made into a TV mini-series, three parts of which are also available for free on YouTube. I haven’t watched it yet, but you will recognize some of your favorite actors. My favorite is Lee Ingleby, but Robson Green is there also. Enjoy!

I listened to the audio production of this book sent to me by Goodreads FirstReads, narrated by Gerard Doyle and produced by HighBridge Audio, a division of Recorded Books. I still don't understand how the title fits in, though. I never caught the reference to that. If anyone out there figures it out, please leave me a comment.




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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thomas P.M. Barnett talks about U.S. Global Strategy in Washington, D.C. (2015, published January 2016)

Mine is book blog. However, I am departing from my normal post to suggest you listen and watch Thomas P.M. Barnett go through his presentation on U.S. global strategy and security. These talks were given in 2015 to an international military audience in Washington, D.C., and published on youTube in January 2016. Barnett has written several books, which he advertises in these links. I found Barnett's speech when researching Perry Anderson, the author of U.S. Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, my last post. Enjoy this set of 9 short videos.

Part 1 Intro


Part 2 America's Growing Energy Self-Sufficiency


Part 3 Climate Change


Part 4 Demographics


Part 5 Millenials Power


Part 6 Military


Part 7 Dangers Ahead


Part 8 The Middle East


Part 9 Questions




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American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers by Perry Anderson

An old friend of mine who is a life-long Marxist and an academic recently reconnected, and when he read that I have been mulling over the way the United States has been conducting its foreign policy, he suggested I read this book. British historian and political essayist Perry Anderson is a Professor of History and Sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles and a former editor of the New Left Review.

Anderson bounds through American foreign policy in the twentieth century, masterfully sketching the outlines of “Washington’s drive for global hegemony.” Anderson is persuasive, especially since many of us now are not intimately familiar with the periods he discusses and he can leave out messy and contradictory words, actions, policies, and intentions of the actors and their administrations. Anderson looks at the results of policies rather than stated intent (not a bad thing in itself) and reviews recent literature published by former foreign policy administrators (Kissinger, Brzezinski, Kagan), and academics (Mead, Layton).

Anderson quotes Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1949-53) as saying (not for public consumption): “…Congress is too damn representative. It’s just as stupid as the people are; just as uneducated, just as dumb, just as selfish.” This point has been made an infinite number of times by those frustrated with the process of democracy, and, I might add, is heard often these days among observers of the American election for president. I sympathize with Acheson, frankly, but neither he nor I would choose a different system, or a different country.

It is enlightening for any student of a particular discipline to encounter someone with quite different ideas, especially if one is dissatisfied with current thinking on a topic. What really astonished me was that I had never heard of several of the folks he mentions as “those to honour”: Christopher Layne, David Calleo, Gabriel Kolko. What this tells me as a reasonably informed citizen is that folks with different viewpoints are sidelined and not covered, much like the coverage of the western press in conflict areas (see my review of The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn). We just don't hear dissenting voices. Anderson also mentions Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, and Noam Chomsky in his select group of those to honor, all of whom I have heard. But I dislike Bacevich for the very reason I tend to dismiss Anderson himself.

Both Bacevich and Anderson are academics, and academics tend to talk among themselves and pat themselves on the back for their wise pronouncements or otherwise shrilly denounce colleagues for holding different opinions. But they pontificate to themselves. Their arguments bear almost no relation to actual diplomacy, or the day to day scrum of running a country. Unless their ideas are brought into the White House with an administration, there is no chance these folks are going to be listened to because their bombast and hurled insults make their comments hard to hear.

Anderson makes the point that “the literature of grand strategy forms a domain of its own, distinct from diplomatic history or political science…individuals moving seamlessly back and forth between university chairs or think tanks and government offices.” Thus the administration also talks to itself. It does seem to be so, and no matter that I personally revile Anderson’s and Bacevich’s style of heated rhetoric and detestable arrogance which makes it difficult for me to read their ideas, they are talking about something in which I am deeply interested, and which has ramifications for the way I vote for America's leaders.

Anderson, who sneers at the “thinkers” of his title, discusses Obama’s role as “executioner-in-chief,” and quotes Ben Rhodes, formerly Obama speechwriter, now National Security Advisor: “What we’re trying to do is to get America another fifty years as leader.” This is also Hillary Clinton’s stated goal. This idea is exactly what I am wondering about. Is American primacy and leadership in the world in the American populace’s best interests, or in the world’s best interests? The answer is not as obvious as it might seem. It may appear to be so, but I can’t help thinking that despite our enormous wealth and resources, we cannot have all the answers for the rest of the world. We don’t even have the answers for our own country. Surely “primacy” is not the point. Or is it? What does that even mean? Does it mean we get to extract resources to support our own wellbeing? Does it mean we must bolster or support the rest of the world? What are our obligations as leader? What are our obligations as an ethical people, even without "primacy"? If I could be sure that the adage "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" was not exampled many times in human history, I might be willing to go along with the leadership idea. But it isn't just leading always, is it?

Despite my difficulty reading this discussion which mentioned so many works I have not read, and so many people of whom I have not heard, I did order Christopher Layne’s The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present to see if I can understand slightly more. My next post has video clips of Thomas P.M. Barnett discussing what should influence U.S. Global Strategy in the future. Barnett gave a talk in 2015 in Washington, D.C. to strategists in the military, and published the talk on YouTube in January 2016.


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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kristin Downey

Queen Isabella of Spain is remembered as being a brilliant logistician, so good at strategizing and outfitting her troops for war that she often emerged victorious. She fought a great deal—her family for the right to rule, Portugal for land and eminence, Muslims to retake occupied territory. She was a strong patron of the arts, curious in intellectual debate, and an ardent Catholic, an unusual combination of traits in any century. Any reader who appreciates history will appreciate Downey’s effort to place Isabella and her contemporaries in the context of world history.

One thing Downey doesn't address is whether the example of Isabella's rule began the recognition of the need for separation of church and state in Western governments. The Catholic Church during Isabella's rule became increasingly corrupt and separated from its teachings, and orders from Isabella on the need to bring Jews and Muslims residing in Spain (conversos) into the Catholic fold became the notoriously punitive Inquisition. Isabella may have been a pious and reasonable leader, but her directives were lost in execution. Downey does share the origin stories of people or events we may have heard bits of in our lives but never knew where to find the references:

Monty Python: The Monty Python skit of the soldier who first loses a leg, then an arm, then another arm…you know it…was based on the struggles of Portuguese soldier, Duarte de Almeida, to keep the Portuguese flag flying in the Battle of Toro against Ferdinand and Isabella, who were thought to be illegally seizing the throne in Castile.
"It was difficult to recount later exactly what happened because the Portuguese and Castilian accounts differed...the Castilians seized the battle flag, the royal standard of Portugal, despite the valiant efforts of a Portuguese soldier, Duart de Almeida, to retain it. Almeida had been holding the flag aloft in his right arm, which was slashed from his body, and so he transferred the pendant to his other arm and kept fighting. Then his other arm was cut off, and he held the flag in his teeth until he finally succumbed to death."

Count Dracula: Mehmed the Conquerer was determined to expand the Ottoman Empire and conquered Constantinople in 1453. Mehmed renamed the city Istanbul and swore to take Rome within two years. He didn’t, but he managed to take Athens and Corinth and Serbia. In 1462, as Mehmed was attempting to subdue the geographical region of Romania, then called Wallachia, Mehmed came up against his father’s former hostage, Vlad, who had been beaten and abused in the Turkish court and then sent back to Wallachia to rule. “Vlad fought Mehmed ferociously, earning himself the name of Vlad the Impaler, the prototype for the character that came to be known as Count Dracula. He is estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people, partly in efforts to repel the Turks. He was finally assassinated.”

The game of chess: "Chess was enormously popular in Spain during Isabella’s rule…and soon after the battle [of Almeria during the Reconquest], the Queen became the single most powerful piece on the chessboard, able to move great distances in all directions, her mission is to protect and defend the key piece on the board, the King. Some versions of chess had had a Queen figure before Isabella’s birth, but it was at this time that the fame, originally invented in India, underwent a complete metamorphosis and the queen became a dominant figure. The changes in the game were chronicled in a popular book on the new rules of chess, published in Salamanca about 1496, written by Ramirez de Lucena. He described the game now as “queen’s chess,” and her new powers allowed her to “advance as far as she liked, as long as her path was clear.” Queen Isabella had memorialized herself as a powerful player in the game of war."

1492 was the year that Americans have enshrined as the year Columbus discovered North America. But in Spain, it is the year that Isabella and Ferdinand finally took back Granada, after the fighting of many years, from the Muslim Nasrid dynasty. “The victory over Granada won acclaim for Isabella and Ferdinand throughout Europe, because it was the first significant triumph against Islam in hundreds of years, and to many Europeans, it was partial payback for the loss of Constantinople.” Cristóbal Colón “was at Granada when the city finally fell to the Christians [to petition the Queen]...but court scholars once again rejected Columbus’s proposal as unsound.” Shortly after meeting with the Queen in Granada, however, the Queen sent a messenger after Columbus, reaching him about ten miles outside of Granada. The trip was approved. Three well-known mariners, the Pinzon brothers, agreed to sign on in leadership positions. Juan de la Costa brought his own ship, Santa Maria. They left August 3, 1492, and sighted land in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492.

Cristóbal Colón: Christopher Columbus was a dreamer with a streak of madness. He wrote in cipher, signed his name in and “indecipherable combination of letters and images.” He heard “voices in the air,” and spent many hours writing feverishly in the margins of books, developing his theories. “…although Columbus showed himself to be an excellent mariner, he was also exposed as a terrible administrator and a man of poor judgement…he faced an almost constant sequences of mutinies among his crew…Columbus’s ferocity in dealing with the Indians was a direct contradiction of his orders from Queen Isabella about how to interact with them…Columbus was viewed with a measure of contempt…Columbus had become very unpopular…at court, and it was getting more difficult for others to stand up for him…He compounded his own problems by denying what was patently obvious. He had promised the sovereigns that he would find a path to the Orient, He had stumbled on something large and important, but it was not the Indies.”

Syphilis Downey makes a case for the notion that Columbus’s returning ship brought the disease to Europe in 1493.

The Inquisition initially began as an attempt to ferret out insincere Christians, and to correct them. Those deemed unrepentant were burned at the stake, the traditional penalty for heresy. The thing was, Spain was filled with Muslims and Jews as a result of previous conquests. Many declared themselves to be Christians to get along, but retained their old customs and methods of worship. “The governing principle of an Inquisition is that failing to conform to religious and political norms is treason. In Isabella’s age, church and state were one—religious authority and secular power were intermingled….Historians once believed that immense numbers of people were burned at the stake, but more recent scholarship has cast doubt on those assertions…There is no questions that during Isabella’s reign, hundreds of people were put to the flame, probably at least 1,000…” Isabella chose a religious zealot, Cisneros, as archbishop of Toledo, the most important and powerful cleric in Spain. With this, she “put her kingdom on a less tolerant and more religious path,” leading to excesses in the Inquisition.

Cesare Borgia: Isabella was a devout Catholic and was pleased when Rodrigo Borgia ascended to the papacy in August 1492, the second time a Spaniard managed to do so. However, Borgia, who had taken the name of the Greek conquerer Alexander IV, proved himself a corrupt and promiscuous pontiff, fathering a vast number of “beautiful and intelligent” children whom he squired to important ranks in society. Cesare, “the cynical man whom Machiavelli called a political genius,” was one of these.

Bonfire of the Vanities took place in Florence, Italy during Lent in 1497 and 1498 when an Italian preacher, determined to rid the Catholic church of corruption, convinced crowds to burn objects that represented human vices and unnecessary luxury. “Items thrown into the bonfire included rich clothing, mirrors, playing cards, and paintings of books, some of which represented pornography but others of which were great works that represented the celebration of sensuality at the heart of the Italian Renaissance.”

Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and returned to Portugal with Indian and Asian spices, just about the time Isabella’s daughter, Maria, married Manuel, King of Portugal. Queen Isabella was at the end of her reign, but now that her daughter was Queen of Portugal, “together they ruled over much of the world, and wealth poured into their countries.” Isabella had always been a patron of the arts, commissioning paintings to mark major victories or family events.

Catherine of Aragon was Isabella’s fourth daughter. She was wed to Britain’s Prince of Wales, Arthur, but it is uncertain whether or not the marriage was consummated before Arthur died of the plague in 1502. It was suggested that she marry Arthur’s brother Henry instead of returning to Spain, but in order to do so, Isabella needed a papal dispensation from the Pope she had begun to hate for his excesses, Pope Alexander IV (Rodrigo Borgia). King Ferdinand therefore drafted the request, and after two years the dispensation returned from Italy and was subsequently sent to England.

When Isabella died in 1504, “even her enemies in other countries recognized her [as] one of the wisest and most honourable persons in the world.” In the prosaic way we might recognize today, her son dumped her vast collection of jewels and worldly goods, selling them far below market value so that they were later resold piecemeal at far higher prices. Her priceless collection of paintings was salvaged in part by a daughter-in-law, Margaret, “who bought many of the paintings of Christ’s life,” which were kept as a set. “Today most of them remain in Madrid’s Royal Palace; the rest are part of the treasured collections of major art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.”

I am not a historian, but historically-minded readers will find her popular history filled with possibilities for further investigation. The back and forth nature of writing history is probably the best way to record all the events in a certain time period, but sometimes, with the detail, I didn't always get a clear view of chronology, or a snapshot of a moment in time. I read the paper copy and listened to the audio version published by Random House and narrated by Kimberly Farr. Both Downey and Farr did a herculean job.


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