Tuesday, November 29, 2016


John Guy has chosen to concentrate his biography of Elizabeth I of England on the latter years of her reign.  It is true as he states, that almost all the biographies of Elizabeth have dwelt heavily on the early  romantic years of her life and reign.  What Guy discovered was a treasure trove of original hand-written state papers that had been largely ignored allowing him to write an important book which gives us a much fuller picture of the real Elizabeth, someone much more complex and deep than the myth of "Good Queen Bess."

Elizabeth was 25 when she ascended the throne and she ruled for 44 years.  Beginning with the famous Spanish Armada (there were actually four failed Armadas by the Spanish), Elizabeth's later years were constantly bedeviled by war and the need to raise the money to conduct these wars.  Elizabeth's difficult childhood and adolescence primed her to be wary of all who surrounded her.  Well it was for her to be so.  She lived in an age where the bureaucracy was "heavily weighted against a woman ruler." Her life was a constant battle against a male dominated society.  Early on she learned how difficult it was to be both feminine and show strength.  Hers was a brilliant, difficult personality. She was vain, spoiled, snobbish and unpredictable. She was also intelligent, independent, and wise to the ways of court intrigues. She lived in an age of social and religious unrest.  There were many plots to murder her and put a Catholic on the throne.  She considered her best time to be after she reached age 50 and had no longer to fend off the many suitors for her hand.  Guiding Elizabeth through this maze of plots and subplots was William Cecil, Lord Burghley, thoroughly loyal and the most important political mentor in her life.  He advised Elizabeth since she was 15 years old and though they manipulated and bullied each other, they had deep and abiding ties.

As she aged, Elizabeth became more desperate to hold on to her youth.  She dressed in what could only be extremely uncomfortable and elaborate costumes with high lacy collars which could hide her wrinkled neck, bedecked with precious stones and pearls.  After the death of Robert Dudley (the love of her life), she strung along a number of hypocritical and fawning young men who hoped to make their fortunes through flattery.  She was surrounded by spies and double agents.  The very fact that she learned to use and survive in such danger is reason enough to regard her with awe.

The older Elizabeth had many challenges and failures.  There was unrest among her subjects as it became clear she could not pay the soldiers who fought in the seemingly endless wars.  Many starved or died of disease like typhus.  A number of military leaders ignored her orders because she was a woman; most prominently Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex who was executed when she could no longer abide his drama and disobedience.  Finally, toward the end of her life, she could see the reigns of power slipping away from the monarchy as her loyal courtiers began to age and die.  It was the beginning of the growth of Parliamentary power.  "She did not believe herself accountable to her people.  The problem was that other now did."

This is an important book for all Elizabethan scholars and those interested in the history of the Tutors.  It is well documented and interesting.  If you have read anything of Elizabeth and her earlier years, this is a fascinating companion reading, and should be read to gain a more complete picture of this interesting woman and Queen. I highly recommend John Guy's book.

Friday, November 18, 2016

AMERICAN HEIRESS by Jeffrey Toobin

Everyone living in the United States in 1974 most likely remembers the name of Patty Hearst.  We couldn't help it as the press latched onto this dramatic story of American royalty, kidnapping, terrorists, money, and social injustice.  We were fascinated by Patty Hearst and her captivity.  Was she brainwashed, suffering Stockholm syndrome, or was she a spoiled rebellious young woman looking for some excitement in her ordinary life, playacting at being an urban guerrilla?  Or was she honestly converted to seeing the unjust world of wealth vs. poverty so obvious in the city of Los Angeles?  All this was 40 years ago, and today Patty Hearst is a matronly widow who involves herself with show dogs and all the other facets of upperclass wealth.

Toobin has written a fascinating account of the mystery of Patty Hearst, which he states is very much a story of America in the 1970s, a nation shattered by the recent scandal of Watergate and political shenanigans of the Nixon Whitehouse. The Hearst kidnapping spurred a national debate about victimhood, and Toobin's book brings to light new letters and information to help us form a more complete picture of this time period.

Patty Hearst was taken from the Berkeley apartment which she shared with her fiancĂ©, Steven Weed.  She was a mere 17 when she became engaged to Weed, who comes out very poorly in the book.  The group responsible for the kidnapping called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small group of only nine members led by an escaped convict, Donald DeFreeze known as Cin. The SLA was able to hoodwink the press and police into thinking them a much larger organization, and they skillfully manipulated the media into keeping them in the spotlight for well over a year.  Patty was kept in a closet blindfolded for 57 days, all the while fed a trope of the evils of parasitic capitalism with her father, Randy, as the chief villain.  Soon after being freed from her cell, Patty became a full fledged member of the SRA, taking part in robberies and becoming adept at making bombs and handling guns. All this was well publicized and watched with fascination by the public.  Eventually, most of the members of the SRA were killed in a spectacular shootout, again on live t.v., which Patty watched from a motel room with her lover, Steve Soliah. They were on the run and were able to successfully evade the FBI until 1975.

Toobin claims that Patty is a survivor.  In order to survive she became Tania with her revolutionary comrades.  When finally captured, after her arrest, she once again put on her pearls and twinset and became the brainwashed college girl.  This was the basis of the defense sketchily prepared by F.Lee Bailey who the family hired to defend her.  It turns out Bailey was more interested in writing a book about the case than in preparing a convincing defense.  Patricia Hearst was sentenced after a sensational trial.  She was eventually pardoned by President Carter after only serving a bit of jail time.  And thus, she retreated into suburban life after marrying her bodyguard, Bernie Shaw.  The author sums up by stating, "Patricia led the life for which she was destined.  She did not turn into a revolutionary.  She turned into her mother."

This is a well-written book about a period of turmoil in America.  In many ways, it was a bizarre time in our history.  It is worth looking back up and taking any lessons it might offer.  I highly recommend the book to all readers.  It would be an excellent choice for a book club discussion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

THE GERMAN WAR by Nicholas Stargardt (non-fic)

Subtitled: A Nation Under Arms 1939-1945

As the author states in his introduction, this book is about how the German people experienced and sustained the Second World War until the bitter end.  It is a brilliantly written account of how life carries on in war; about the ordinary everyday things that happen in the midst of severe bombing and loss of life.  It shows people going to the store, standing in bread lines, attending school, going to the cinema. And most of all it shows how the German people bought into and fed on the propaganda lies perpetrated by Hitler and Goebbles which became more fantastical as the war years went on.  The reader begins to understand how easy it was, and is, to drift under the power of a demagogue, and how quickly people believe what they want to believe ignoring what they see in front of them, whether it was lines of Jews being deported to concentration camps, or young boys fighting on the front in the waning days of the war.

Beside providing in depth analysis of the key battles of the war, Stargardt tells us of the story of the war years through the letters and diaries of the German people some of whom lived to the tragic ending and many who died either on the front or in the destruction of German cities, and this includes Christians and Jews.  We learn what ordinary soldiers were thinking, how people viewed military deployment.  We read in these letters and diaries how seemingly intelligent people swallow Hitler's grandiose new order to make Germany as great as it was before WWI, how they came to embrace the idea of victory or annihilation.  Letters show us how some believed it necessary to persecute Jews and how some put their lives in danger to to help Jews.  We read of youth, those with hope and those in despair.

A tragedy often overlooked was the blatant murder of psychiatric patients in institutions and the handicapped who did not fit into Hitler's new order.  The number euthanized rose to 216,400 before the war ended.  Along with this was the treatment of the Polish people and the shocking number who were killed or sent to labor camps, along with other Slavic people.  Another deplorable situation we don't hear much about is the large number of young children and teens who were put in detention centers in deplorable conditions under the label "morally depraved" if they showed any resistance or opposition to the government.  Organized religion, notably the Catholic Church, also bears the shame of remaining largely silent despite being fully aware of the atrocities around them.

We all know the tragic outcome of Hitler's refusing to admit defeat and insisting to fight on two fronts to the bitter end.  Because of this policy, millions of Germans died unnecessarily, Central Europe was devastated and in the end Germany was left divided between East and West until the late 1980s.  The German people suffered more casualties than all of western Europe and most died in the last months of the war.  In 1945 within a matter of weeks, 450,000 people died, more than the United States lost in all its wars in the 20th century.

Stargardt has given us a well-written account of the horrible tragedy of WW2 on the German people and the perils of blindly following a drug-addled dictator.  I highly recommend this book as an account of the war from the standpoint of the common German citizens.