Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Was there a female pope as has been claimed in several historical books about her reign or is Pope Joan merely a hoax perpetrated on the Catholic church for some unknown reason? Donna Woolfolk Cross took what little she could find and turned the information into a novel.

Pope Joan is a historical novel about Joan from Ingelheim, a young girl who hungered for learning and was denied by her father, and the time in which she lived, because she was female. A Greek teacher recognized her intelligence and refused to teach Joan's brother John unless Joan was included, and this pattern continued until fate offered her a chance to change things by assuming her brother's name and gender. John was massacred during a Viking raid on the day of Joan's contracted marriage. Since she was the ward of a local landowner, whose wife was jealous of Joan's relationship with her husband, Joan had to go and in a way that would destroy all her hopes of a different life as an educated woman.

The 9th century was the darkest of the Middle Ages. Few people, even among the clergy, could read or write and women were meant to cook, sew, clean, and bear children, as many children as their bodies would accommodate. Many women, from the age of 14, were given in marriage and were pregnant every year. Many children were stillborn and even more never grew up to become productive citizens. It was believed that a female who could read and write used up all her fertile energy and could not bear children. It is the reverse of the modern joke that men have only enough blood in their bodies to run one brain at a time, except this was no joke, but the way society perceived women as chattel and baby factories.

Donna Woolfolk Cross uses her research skills and her background in writing nonfiction to infuse Pope Joan with as much fast as was available and considerable fictional skills to bring the times and Joan to life. The longing to be able to read and write and knowing the only obstacle in the way is one's gender is one that will resonate with many women even in today's world. To be hampered by biology is unthinkable to someone who hungers for more -- more books, more languages, more learning, and more life as a being with reason and intelligence. In this, Cross has hit all the right notes, even down to the internal war of wanting physical love at the peril of being unmasked as a fraud.

Pope Joan is a novel that encompassed the historical truths while offering a glimpse of the sacrifices made in the name of equality and knowledge. Pope Joan is the story of female empowerment at a time when women had no power and the only way to realize such lofty dreams was to hide what they were in order to choose knowledge and freedom. Many women throughout this period, and in other times in the history of the world, have donned masculine disguise to hide their perceived inadequacies and prove that the only inadequate thing about them is the society in which they live. Although Joan lived more than a thousand years ago, her story is as powerful today as it ever was.

The Catholic church has long denied the existence of a female pope, even while many of the popes who followed her acknowledge her existence and her contributions. I find it most telling that it was not until after Pope Joan's sex was undeniably proven that future popes must be publicly examined in order to prove they are male. There was no need before Pope Joan since no other woman had made it so far.

Cross's historical novel is as wonderful as it is shocking and all the more timely when women's rights and place in society is at peril. How many women in today's world are willing to sacrifice everything to realize their dreams? After reading Pope Joan, they may find the sacrifice worth the prize. With solid historical details and an understanding of the complexities of the human heart, Pope Joan is an outstanding novel for our times.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Who has not thought about Dracula, Vlad Tepes III, killer of Turks and purported vampire? Bram Stoker certainly did when he wrote his novel, Dracula, and that book has inspired the legions of writers currently churning out vampire novels by the thousands. There are vampires conflicted about their undead and unholy state, vampires seeking redemption and trying to find a way back to the light, vampire rock stars, vampires of every stripe and depth of evil, and Dracula even makes cameo appearances in some of these fantasies. The Historian is not that kind of novel.

Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Elizabeth Kostova's venture into Vlad III's past is also an epistolary novel. All the action centers on a family: the father, a historian writing his dissertation, and Helen, a woman seeking revenge on the man who left her mother alone and pregnant in Transylvania. Helen Rossi is also a historian who began as an anthropologist and then decided to outdo her famous father in his own field of history, and their daughter searching for her missing father through his work. In Kostova's realm, there are stories within stories within stories.

At the heart of the tale is Vlad Tepes III, King of Wallachia and knight of the Order of the Dragon. The Historian is an adventure that takes the reader through history's archives and libraries to find his resting place before he finds them. In some ways, The Historian is much like The da Vinci Code, taking its cues from actual historical documents, but with a much darker purpose. Ancient books with a dragon woodcut at the center of each appears to Rossi, Paul, and several other historians, bringing with it a challenge and a threat. Each of the books is an invitation from Vlad, a historical come hither that begs to be answered.

Bartholomew Rossi's disappearance brings Paul and Helen together for very different reasons. Helen wants to face the father that left her mother and Paul wants to find his mentor and his friend. The search for Rossi is also the search for Vlad, for Dracula's final resting place and time is of the essence.

Paul and Helen's travels begin in America and follow the footsteps of history to Constantinople, Wallachia, Transylvania, Hungary, France, Italy, England, Bulgaria and use actual historical documents. The chase is thrilling and the tales of loss, love, and horror palpably real. History has never been so dangerous or thrilling.

If you're looking for vampire sex and conflicted heroes, this is not the book for you. If you are a  student of history or find dusty archives and clues hidden in folk songs and crumbling vellum or fancy yourself an adventurer with a detective's keen insight, The Historian is the book for you. As a debut novel, Elizabeth Kostova has set the bar very high for every book that follows, and I think she is equal to the task.

I will add that I began the book last year and had to put it down because I was so affected by the scene in Turgut Bora's room. The descriptions left me with nightmares for days and I decided to take a break. When the E-book finally became available in a more realistic (and cheaper) cost, I decided to buy it and take the story from there. The Historian is one of those books in which one more chapter becomes half the book. There is nothing dull or lethargic at any point in the novel. This is literary art with fangs that sink deeply and will not let go--even at the end of the tale.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: The Life of Cesare Borgia by Rafael Sabatini

Since there are now a couple of cable series about the Borgias, The Borgias on Showtime and Borgia: Faith and Fear, I have had a look at what most of the world thinks about the Borgias. Everyone knows that Lucrezia Borgia was a poisoner without peer and I seem to remember she was involved The Shaggy Dog, something about a painting of her and a ring that turned a teenage boy into a shaggy dog and eventually into a shaggy D.A., but that is as far as my knowledge went.

Cesare Borgia intrigued me, not only because he was a handsome and charismatic man, at least on The Borgias, but because he died so young. Yes, I do surf Wikipedia while watching shows because I want to know the truth. I did it quite often while caught up in The Tudors. I chose The Life of Cesare Borgia by Rafael Sabatini and I'm glad I did -- mostly. There was so much about Roderigo (Pope Alexander VI) than about Cesare, but Cesare was in there.

Sabatini goes to great lengths to provide proof for his history and dispells the myths and bad press the Borgias have had at the hands of historians over the centuries. Someone died and immediately, even if the death was a month or more later and the Borgias far from the scene of the death on their own business, the murdered was slain by the Borgias' special poison. Right, get that one through a court of law, except there was no court of law and no charges were brought, just a lot of innuendo and carping.

Cesare Borgia was a handsome, athletic, well formed man with tons of charisma, much like his father, Roderigo. He chafed at being a cardinal and gave up the religious life for a life of the warrior, the position his brother held until he died. Roderigo meant Cesare for the church and Juan for soldiering, and he mostly got his way, except in the end with Cesare.

Sabatini lays all the accusations of murder to rest, as much as possible, and paints a very different picture of Cesare and the rest of the Borgias. Cesare was a man of quick intelligence and a master of warfare. The people loved him and many of his conquests welcomed him with open arms and the keys to the cities. He helped his father bring most of Italy back under the control of the papal state and did so with dispatch and ingenuity. He wasn't above mercy and many of the tyrants he overthrew were allowed to leave the area with their portable wealth and goods, except in a couple of cases. The Life of Cesare Borgia is a well researched look at the Borgias that puts the family and their actions in the perspective of the times and shows that they indeed were good people whose ambitions led them to the highest levels of society with a trail of jealous and vengeful colleagues and detractors bent on destroying the Spanish pope and his family.

I found The Life of Cesare Borgia heavy on proof and history and a bit light on anything more than fact about Cesare. This is a book for those interested in the history of the time and its people who aren't looking for a book with lots of action and characterization. These are the facts, just the facts, with strong proofs that paint a very different picture of the family and Cesare. I find I like Cesare and all the Borgias much better even with my gut instinct that the Borgias have been the victims of a centuries long smear campaign.