Review – The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason, and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant

The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason, and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant

By Robert Hutchinson

William Morrow

ISBN: 9780060837334

2.75 stars

Oh the Tudors. What a bunch you are — paranoid, mean-spirited, mean, gluttonous, and in the case of Henry, horny. This book only deals with his last years so a lot of the horny court play had run its course already and what was left was a sick, dying man sadly looking for companionship in his last days.

For a man so concerned with his public image and legacy, specifically an heir, he’s remembered much differently than I’m sure he ever thought possible even in his wildest dreams. In his later years, Henry was incredibly obese and most likely spent every minute of his last days in pain. His ulcerated legs constantly oozed. His diet of meat, meat, and more meat caused digestion issues, and he still worried about maintaining appearances. He’s an interesting figure and it’s obvious why so many people want to write books about him and the Tudor court. Honestly though, a book about Henry’s PR machine is something I’d probably read though.

It’s his final wife, Katherine Parr, who brings his family back together though. Welcoming Mary and Elizabeth into the fold and Henry, at this point, adds them to his succession line. His heir, Edward, dies at the young age of 16, Mary turns out to not be the best at ruling, but Elizabeth, well, she turns out to be Henry’s true legacy. Interesting how that works sometimes isn’t it?

This book is broken into chunks meaning each chapter is about a certain aspect of his life — his sickness, his will, his last queen, and his death. While it’s interesting to see these aspects broken down this way, the timeline gets muddles and I found it slightly hard to follow in terms of what year it was and what was important.

I’ve read a lot about the Tudors, both fact and fiction, and some of this felt too familiar to be as interesting as I wanted it to be. I’m glad I picked it up and I’m sure it’ll add a new perspective to my next Tudor historical fiction read. I realize that while I am sort of tired (sort of bored would be a better way to put it) of the Tudors, I know I’ll probably pick up another book about them and I’m not sure why. Perhaps that will be many days down the road though.

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.  The idea is to give everyone a look inside the book you’re reading.

Play along: Grab your current read; Open to a random page; Share two teaser sentences from that page; Share the title and author so other participants know what you’re reading.

I’m starting The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason, and Heresy at the Court of the Dying Tyrant by Robert Hutchinson.

“Henry VIII – ‘by the grace of God, King of England, France and Lord of Ireland, Defender of the Faith and the Church of England … on earth the Supreme Head’ – finally departed his long, troubled life, friendless and lonely, at around two o’clock in the morning on Friday 28 January 1547.  The golden glory of his spry, gallant youth had years ago faded away and the radiant European prince of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 had decayed into a bloated, hideously obese, black-humoured old man, rarely seen in public during his last month.”  (pg. 13 of 273)

Review – Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

By Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown & Company

ISBN: 978-0-316-12180-4

4 stars

She’s been portrayed as a seductress, a whore, a queen, a brilliant woman, a trailblazer, and was even played by Elizabeth Taylor in a role she’ll always be remembered for.  But who was the woman we know as Cleopatra?  Accounts of her life vary so greatly I believe what I personally know about her is probably based more on a pop culture standard than on reality.  Reading about her makes me wonder how a woman so smart — she was an extremely well-educated woman for her time able to speak several languages — could manage to both get herself into and out of trouble so many times.  Cleopatra managed to rule a kingdom, make it prosper, and seduce two Roman rulers without an uprising occurring in Egypt during her reign.  By any standard, she deserves a place in history.

Unfortunately, and I’ve encountered this before in reading about ancient women, her story is told by men and through the men in her life which means a good portion of the book is set aside for Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.  Frankly, they both played such enormous roles in her life that it would be impossible to exclude either in the telling of her story, but many recorders of history, mostly Roman men, preferred to write her life story as one of luck, scandal, sheer bravado, sheer stupidity (depending on who is doing the writing), and in some cases, slightly in wonder of her.  Cicero ’s take on Cleopatra is infuriating but he’s no fan of women in general and there was no expectation that he would treat Cleopatra, even though a queen in her own right, with anything nearing awe or even dignity.  Granted, many of her acts — her first appearance before Julius Caesar she is smuggled into his presence in a burlap bag — aren’t so regal.  Her trip to Rome to visit Caesar is though and that’s where this book shines.

Schiff takes a story about a woman we know and strips away many of the generalizations about her and presents someone still recognizable but also intriguing.  She starts off with her education which is amazing for the time period considering most women, and definitely most Roman women, were never educated at all.  She could speak several languages which made beguiling audiences and male rules rather easy.  She created a currency system with denominations and managed a vast wealth without losing it to the men in her life.  Egypt prospered with her as queen and she built what some consider wonders of the ancient world.  Sadly, none survive to this day and most likely collapsed in a giant earthquake and now rest underwater leaving readers to imagine what an amazing site Alexandria must have been in her day.

Cleopatra in many ways helped to create the image of her that we have today.  Inscriptions and temple carvings still exist of her and her children in Egypt and she was a master of managing her image.  Her identity with the goddess Isis and the luxurious ways in which she inhabited her life would cause anyone to be impressed, especially a general like Marc Antony who was easily impressed, had little to no money, and couldn’t manage it when he did happen to get it.  He was also a womanizer and easily taken in by Cleopatra and the impressive world of her Egypt.

I realize this isn’t necessarily helpful as a review and I haven’t told you much in general about the book itself.  Sometimes I admit to having trouble reviewing non-fiction books since there isn’t a plot to follow but if anyone’s life would read like a novel, it would be Cleopatra’s.

If you’re looking for some good non-fiction, pick this one up.  You’ll walk away fascinated and full of facts you’ll want to spout off to everyone you meet.

Review – Demon Fish: Travels Through the World of Sharks

Demon Fish: Travels Through the World of Sharks

By Juliet Eilperin

Pantheon Books

ISBN: 978-0-375-42512-7

4 stars

Sharks.  Fish to be feared?  Or, should we be exchanging our fear for awe?  These ancient fish that have evolved for eons are now facing decimation, and in the case of certain species, humans are the ones doing the killing.  As the author points out, sharks are hard to love.  They aren’t soft and fuzzy and they’re saddled with all those teeth that look ready to take a leg off.  How do you make that appealing?  I found Demon Fish a very enjoyable read but I’m one of those people that believes sharks can be lovable or at the very least fascinating.

Traveling to South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, and Belize, Eilperin meets with shark callers, scientists, shark evangelists, fisherman, environmentalists, restaurateurs selling shark fin soup, and even meets a few sharks up close.  It’s all done in an attempt to understand what draws people to sharks with all their sharp teeth and fins.  Frankly, in some instances, it’s cold hard cash but for others, it’s true admiration.  Each though has a strange reverence for the fish even the ones that make their living off dead sharks.

It’s full of facts: what it takes to track a shark, DNA studies, the cost of shark fins, and shark fishing.  I found myself constantly amazed by the cash amounts assigned to certain parts of a shark’s anatomy.  I also wanted to follow my husband around citing random shark facts at him.  Considering my husband doesn’t share my love of sharks, he would have found this really annoying.  🙂  I would have found it enlightening and fun.

I’ve mentioned this before; I’m a huge fan of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.  I actually wrote this while watching an episode on great whites so I guess it’s fitting that I’m posting it today.  While this book focused on the economy of sharks — their worth on the open market as well as their scientific and ecological worth — I enjoyed it.  I would have liked more information about specific species (Have you ever heard of a salmon shark or a goblin shark?) but that wasn’t the focus of the book, however, it was still a satisfying read.  If you have an interest in sharks, this is a good addition to your library.

Today’s Book – Non-Fiction & Travelogues

Today, I’m highlighting three books on my TBR.  I’ve said before that I want to read more non-fiction this year and while I haven’t stuck with my one non-fiction book a month idea, I have added several to my list.  Let’s take a look.

Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire by JC McKeown – I love strange facts about ancient Rome and this one promises to provide me with facts for days about Roman life, superstitions, and customs.

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach – This one appealed to me because her travels are centered in Europe.  It’s also got a bit of the finding yourself theme that I don’t so much like but I think I can look past that to enjoy the travel part.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams – We live near the Peruvian embassy in DC.  Right now they have banners up celebrating the discovery of Machu Picchu and the photos on the banners make me want to get on a plane.  I also have a friend that hiked the trail this year so there are many reasons this one appeals.

Anything interesting on your list?

Review – Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography

Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography

By Matthew Dennison

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 978-0-312-65864-9

3.5 stars

A few years ago I read a biography of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, and loved it.  I moved on to a biography of Cicero but never finished it; my interest in ancient Rome waning slightly on the non-fiction front.  My husband, knowing I enjoy reading about this time period, brought home this biography for me and in an effort to read more non-fiction this year, Livia, Empress of Rome made it to the top of pile quickly.

Livia’s life is told through the men in her life.  Starting with her father, then her first husband, the affair she has with Octavian, the man who would become Augustus, and then her sons.  For ancient Romans, who could be meticulous when it came to noting things of importance, weren’t so good about record keeping when it came to women.  Even the date of Livia’s birth is speculation but easy enough to pin down to a year or two.  Her first marriage is rather undocumented much like her birth but it’s when she meets and begins an affair with Octavian that her life seems to become more definitive.  Divorcing her first husband, and merely three days after giving birth to her second son, Livia marries Octavian and she embarks on the journey of becoming one of the first women in ancient Rome to be called empress.

Constantly accused of being manipulative and power hungry, her marriage to Octavian, who is on a path of power himself, surprises no one.  In fact, the descriptions of Livia are less than flattering but that doesn’t stop her husband from portraying her as the pious, divine, and picture of goodness he wants her and every other woman in Rome to be.  The marriage of Livia and Octavian was probably based on love considering Livia never gave birth to a child of Octavian’s and he could have easily divorced her in favor of a woman who could bear him sons.  Apparently though, it didn’t stop Octavian from having affairs which considering his pious public persona, was quite amusing to read about.  Octavian, now Augustus, dies without a son or heir but being ancient Rome, the act of adoption is not unknown and he adopts Livia’s son Tiberius in order keep a line of succession.  For a man who planned everything, not having an heir had to be distressing considering each time he named someone they died.  Rumors abounded that it was Livia who was scheming to put her son Tiberius in line and poisoned the others.  These rumors of poisoning actually followed her throughout her life and beyond but nothing was ever proven.

I have to say for a book that in parts felt dry, and I found myself somewhat annoyed at times when I wanted the book to more about Livia and not the men she was surrounded by, I have so much to say about it.  It wasn’t the best book I’ve read or the best biography, but it was good.  Obviously, writing about someone whose life took place in ancient times is difficult and though this one wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, it was interesting enough.

Today’s Book – is a new book

I’m reading Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, actually I’ve been reading it for the last week.  It’s good, very good, but life’s been hectic so I haven’t spent much time it.  Due to my unexpected reading delay, I thought I would instead talk about a new book I bought — Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks by Juliet Eilperin.

Confession time.  I heart sharks.  I just do.  I don’t know why.  On a trip to St. Thomas a few years ago, my husband and I went on a kayaking day trip and I was disappointed at not seeing a shark when we stopped to go snorkeling at a wreck.  The wreck was a small speedboat so don’t be too impressed with me.  Anyway, the barracudas were interesting and the tropical fish were very pretty but no sharks.  While packing up and getting ready to head back our guide said, “Oh, look, a shark.”  I dropped my paddle and kayak, ran back in the water, and got a glimpse of the said shark.  It was a nurse shark.  It’s wasn’t big, it wasn’t all that scary either, but it was a shark.  Smiling, and very thrilled with my shark encounter, I picked up my kayak and got in for the trip home.  My husband made fun of me all the way back, “Who runs in the water after a shark?”  Hmm, I do.  True story.

So this week I give you my summer reading, Demon Fish.  My perfect beach book.  🙂

Today’s Book – Livia, Empress of Rome

I read non-fiction much slower than fiction so I’m not surprised to find myself less than 100 pages into Livia, Empress of Rome two days later.  While I’m enjoying the book, it can be at times slightly hard to follow.  It’s not the author’s fault either since records of Roman women, even the ones that marry emperors, were not kept with any regularity.  The story is told through the men in her life, which is interesting, but at times frustrating since a good deal of the time you’re left reading about a man whose role in Livia’s life was minimal but their meeting was the only way to mark the passage of time in her life.

Roman lifestyles, marriage in particular, are fascinating to read about and slightly disturbing.  Women are used as pawns, not to say they didn’t have a say in who or when they married (most didn’t but in households where a marriage was based on love, some thought may have been given to the daughter’s wishes but it would have been unusual) but most of the time are traded easily as property which is how most if not all are thought of.  For instance, Livia’s second marriage to Octavian (Emperor Augustus in later years) happens while she is pregnant with her second child from her first husband.  Of course, out of courtesy, Octavian waits to marry her until after she gives birth.  A few days after she has the baby, they marry and the child is returned to Livia’s first husband as was the custom when a man marries a woman pregnant with another’s child.  Crazy.

What I’m enjoying most is not necessarily the information about Livia, she is an interesting person though, but the background on Roman life.  Debauched is a good description this early on but not the only one that can be used.  I’m sure I’ll have more when I get to the end of this one.