Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Review: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

February 6, 2011 1 comment

Alison Weir’s eminently readable history covers one of the most tumultuous periods when dynastic and political machinations crushed the lives of many individuals, families, and rocked the people of England. For me, this is one of the most interesting eras since the time is so removed from our own, but yet is on the cusp of the modern. There are so many interesting and compelling personalities at this time, who are all drawn up into this story even tangentially: Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, Sir Thomas More, Martin Luther, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Francois I of France, Emperor Charles V, and of course Henry VIII, his six wives, and three living children.

I’ve read this particular history several times as well as numerous others, and find this work to be very accessible and enoyable. Although Weir does describe the politics surrounding each of the marriages and the vying for power that took place among the many noble families and for/against the reformed religion, her goal appears to make these incredible women real and sympathetic.  It’s more about the personalities and the world in which they lived.

Weir uses her sources to glean many details which provide color to Henry’s court, worked within Weir’s distinctive narrative style:  descriptions of specific pieces of clothing and residences, quotes from letters and diplomatic dispatches, etc.

Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced beheaded survived

  • Katherine of Aragon’s life is extremely sympathetic and the sections of the book which describe the deprivations she was forced to are very compelling.
  • Anne Boleyn is neither the paragon of virtue nor the devil’s spawn that comes out of contemporary and even modern popular sources.  Striving to improve her family’s lot, to be sure, and probably unsuitable personality-wise to be queen in that era, but hardly evil.
  • Jane Seymour is perhaps the queen that disappears the most, since she largely kept herself subservient to her husband and was queen so briefly.
  • I think Anne of Cleves is one of the most fascinating characters; tragic, true, since she was abandoned by the king so rudely, but who was likely the wife who had the best outcome.
  • Katherine Howard is described as somewhat young and foolish rather than maliciously immoral.
  • Katherine Parr, a widow, attempted to give the king’s children a more normal family life and provided for them intellectually

5 out of 5 stars (finished February 6, 2011)


Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom & Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

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Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

January 30, 2011 1 comment

My immediate impression of Theodore Roosevelt after reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris is “frenetic whirlwind”.

I selected to read this book for two reasons:  (1) I graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, IA, but really knew nothing about him and (2) it was listed on the 100 Must-Read Books for the Essential Man’s Library as determined by from which I am reading 50 books for my 101 goals in 1001 days project.

I won’t go into detail about Roosevelt’s life — there are plenty of sources for that, including this book which won the Pulitzer Prize– but will give a few impressions of the man and of the narrative itself.

This volume, which is later followed by Theodore Rex (2001) and Colonel Roosevelt (2010), covers Roosevelt’s early life up to taking office as President of the United States after the assassination of William McKinley.  At the time, he was the youngest ever to hold that office, but he had packed in a lifetime of living and public service already.

A few thoughts:

  • Roosevelt’s energy and industry was inspiring.  Morris describes a man always moving, working hard and playing hard.
  • His ongoing reaction to the death of his first wife is completely puzzling to me.  Other than a brief tribute to her memory, Roosevelt never mentioned her name or spoke of her again, not even including her name in his autobiography.  Granted his loss was tragic (his mother also died the same day in the same house), but it would seem a healthier reaction to speak of her fondly in the years following, perhaps with a still melancholic sorrow.
  • Although I was obliquely aware of the more extreme crony-ism earlier in America’s history, I didn’t really understand how pervasive and “normal” it was.    During Benjamin Harrison’s administration, Roosevelt was appointed to the Civil Service Commission where he joined other anti-spoilsman in demanding that laws requiring many offices and government positions to be filled by merit.  Although somewhat unsuccessful due to the power of the machine, he never flinched from a fight.
  • Along with his energy, I was also inspired by Roosevelt’s capacity to enter a completely new position or activity head on, without much background knowledge and quickly become a tireless, effective member.  Whether it be entering Harvard as a home-schooled student, running for state office in the NY legislature, learning the ranching trade in North Dakota, enforcing Civil Service laws, writing biographies of prominent political figures and a study of the US Navy in the War of 1812, becoming a New York City police commissioner, canvassing to become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and then volunteering for a lieutenant colonel-ship during the Spanish American War.
  • Roosevelt appears to have been a quick judge of character and was no stranger to a spontaneous (sometimes over-forceful) reaction, which made him loyal friends and staunch opponents.  His spontaneity also seems to have made things more difficult years later as he had to work with some of the same people.
  • Although lauded at the time, the charge up San Juan Hill seems to have been a bit over-drawn.  Frankly, it felt a little anti-climactic.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a fascinating read which is filled with a variety of source material, much of it in Roosevelt’s own words.  Morris does a good job outlining many of the issues of the day and the intricacies of intra-departmental squabbles so that Roosevelt’s character is fully on display.  I highly recommend reading this book.

5 out of 5 stars (finished January 29, 2011)


Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, & Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

Truth finally said through the mouths of political babes

January 29, 2011 Leave a comment

An amusing anecdote is recounted in Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt during Roosevelt’s campaign for election to the governorship of New York.  Some of the electorate’s excitement was due to his heroics during the Spanish-American War (notably San Juan Hill in Cuba) and the mystique of the Rough Riders.  In this specific campaign stop, two of his Rough Rider men were with him.  One, Sergeant Buck Taylor, introduced Roosevelt as follows:

I want to talk to you about mah Colonel.  He kept ev’y promise he made to us and he will to you….  He told us we might meet wounds and death and we done it, but he was thar in the midst of us, and when it came to the great day he led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter and so will he lead you.  (p. 720)

Surprisingly, the audience was more amused by this than shocked.  Certainly a faux pas like this would be 24-hour news fodder for weeks and a sound bite routinely produced at his opponents’ own speeches.

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Sheep are “bleating idiots”

January 15, 2011 Leave a comment

An incident in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris caught my fancy.  In 1883, Roosevelt had a minor land use dispute with another rancher, who had stocked the land with 12,000 sheep.

Like most Americans, Roosevelt had a profound contempt for sheep.  Not only did the “bleating idiots” nibble the grass so short that they starved out cattle, they were, intellectually speaking, about the lowest level of brute creation.  “No man can associate with sheep,” he snorted, “and retain his self-respect.” (pp. 276-7)

Although the incident was ultimately resolved sadly — the flock died over the harsh winter — the turn of phrase was witty.

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was an unusual treat; I really didn’t know what to expect when I chose to read it next from the Essential Man’s Library listing.

I found much of the work to be surprisingly folksy and witty in tone.  And, it is certainly different from biographies written today both in its relative informality and its more episodic nature, rather than attempting to fill in periods of Franklin’s entire life.  In fact, some of the most “famous” stories today, such as flying the kite in a thunderstorm are merely glossed over.  Franklin’s work on the formative documents of the American founding and the Revolution aren’t even mentioned (it appears that the autobiographical work was left uncompleted).

Franklin was certainly a charismatic, creative, and energetic man.  In spite of his forethought (lending libraries, firefighter unions, scientific method, etc), he was also a product of his time.  For example, although he argues that women should be educated, he asserts that this would permit a widow to keep her husband’s business running until her son could take over.  Becoming an abolitionist later in life, he repeats a bawdy joke about slavery and “blacking” the Quakers.

Perhaps the most insightful quote I read was:

If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.

I am considering having this quotation printed up and posted near my computer at work to remind me not to be inflexible, but to consider openly and fully what others tell me, and then make an informed decision.

For me, the earlier portions of the book were more interesting than the rather tedious legislative machinations and the building of a militia stockade in the third and fourth sections.

3 1/2 stars out of 5