Books: Game of Crowns by Christopher Andersen

I seem to be on a bit of a Royals kick these days. Well, nothing like summer for reading trash and gossip, I suppose. Which is mostly what this book is—a curated collection of tidbits culled from magazines, interviews, tabloids. At least, that’s my guess.

The book begins with a hypothetical overview of what is likely to happen when Elizabeth II passes. The phone calls, the conversations, etc. I understand this as a “hook,” but it honestly put me off a bit.

From then on we re-tread old ground of Charles & Camilla (and Diana), William & Kate. The thesis of the book is to examine the succession of the British monarchy, but it mostly just points out that, no matter what anyone wants, Camilla will be de facto queen, at least for a little while. And that most people would much rather have William and Kate and skip Charles and Camilla entirely. All true, of course, but we know Elizabeth will give Charles his crown. Whether the monarchy will last under him is another question this book raises, but with Wills and Kate on the horizon, one thinks the monarchy may cling on a bit longer if people are willing to wait Charles and Camilla out.

I didn’t like Camilla before, and I like her even less after reading this book. I had more sympathy for Charles before reading this book, too. In short, this book does little to nothing for their reputations. It repeatedly underscores how they are outshone by the following generation and maintains that a number of Commonwealth countries may decide to leave and become republics when the crown devolves upon Charles and his Rottweiler. These countries, per Andersen, may not want to wait out Charles’ reign.

Kate comes off a bit better, though, in Andersen’s writing, that seems to be in spite of a grasping mother that pushed Kate under William’s nose and worked to keep her there.

It boils down to a lot of ambition on the parts of the women depicted here. Something to be said for persistence, I suppose, but it really only illustrates that good people are often trampled by those willing to do anything to get what (or who) they want.

Books: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

You know where I must begin with this: my relationship to the material being discussed. I like history, though I only came to any real interest in Anne Boleyn after picking up The Other Boleyn Girl at an airport bookstore several years ago. Like many of the people from Bordo’s website and research, a tidbit of historical fiction sent me looking for the truth, though not in any deep way. I read the Wiki and a few websites to glean what about Gregory’s novel was accurate, what was speculation, and what was pure fabrication. It was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Last week I was wandering the library and came across Bordo’s book and picked it up as a potentially interesting read. Her ostensible goal with this work is to hold up what people think they know about Anne Boleyn and compare it to why they think or believe these things and where in the historical record these ideas may have come from. Considering there are precious few primary sources to mine, and that many of the sources we do have are biased (*cough* Chapuys *cough*), the exercise is not a bad one. But…

Unfortunately, at least in my eyes, the attempt is ruined by Bordo’s own clear biases. She disdains works by Alison Weir, rips apart Gregory’s fiction, snipes at Mantel’s version of Boleyn, and pretty much hates on anyone who ever said a bad word about Anne. Then gushes over Anne of the Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer’s take on Boleyn in The Tudors. Yet seems unable to be clear on why creative license is okay for some but not others (unless it’s because she’s just not okay with Anne Boleyn being a villainess?).

Okay, so some historians make what seem to other history buffs to be wild claims. The real truth is, we don’t know. Bordo disagrees with, well, a lot. And that’s fine; she’s allowed to make her argument and present her data. But to take it that step further and really just attack all these other historian and writers? That’s a bit much.

And the underlying notion that historical fiction should be “more accurate” (or just nicer to Anne, I guess)… It’s f***ing fiction, for one thing. And Bordo doesn’t know for sure Anne wasn’t a total bitch, for another. She’d just rather not believe it. But what really gets me is the argument that, because people will take the historical fiction as true and accurate it should be as faithful to history as possible… That just boggles me. I like to think people know enough to know when they’re reading something that’s made up. I like to think that, just as I and many others Bordo spoke to did, people will go look up the truth if they really want to know. And I don’t think it’s novels’ or movies’ or television programs’ jobs to teach history. If (as The Other Boleyn Girl did for me) one of these media spark an interest in a historical subject, fantastic! If, on the other hand, someone walks away thinking Anne Boleyn was blonde, or had a sixth finger, or was evil incarnate… So? It’s not hurting her any. Pretty sure she doesn’t care, so why does Bordo?

It’s one thing to examine why people think the things they do. That’s an interesting psychological and sociological study—how information spreads in a society, where that information comes from, etc. Even in Boleyn’s time, Chapuys was intent on a smear campaign. But there’s no point in getting angry about it. If it were a fatal disease maybe, but what people think and believe about a long-dead queen? An academic exercise at best; not anything that will save lives or change the world.

In short, Bordo needs to ease up. If she’d come at it objectively, but she didn’t, at that tanked what otherwise was a decent read.

Books: The Bodyguard’s Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor by Trevor Rees-Jones (with Moira Johnston)

I was working on a night shoot when the accident happened, and my whole life was about working both on a film set and my “regular” job, so I didn’t give the news much of my attention. Though I’d loved Princess Diana—or really, the thought of her—by the time the divorce happened and everything after, I wasn’t really following news about her. Maybe this is because I didn’t have regular Internet access, and I’ve never been one for tabloids. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe the fairy tale was over.

Anyway, all this is a long way of saying I don’t even think I knew someone had survived the crash that killed Diana and Dodi. And I only stumbled across this book at the library. Every now and then I get an itch to gorge on some nonfiction, usually history, biography, or psychology. This time I found myself in the world history/culture section and walked away with a small stack that included this one.

I don’t know the whole truth, and I don’t think anyone does, but I appreciate how forthright this book is in tone. I never read all the reports on the crash or more than the summarized versions of the outcomes of the investigations, so this book provided a bit more detail. However, anyone looking for the answer to what actually happened is likely to be disappointed. Though Rees-Jones (and Johnston) paint a thorough pre-crash picture, he doesn’t remember the crash at all, only getting into the Mercedes with Henri Paul at the wheel and Diana and Dodi in back. The back half of the book is about Rees-Jones’ recovery and his being hounded by Dodi’s father, plus various legal issues. Still, I found it interesting enough to push through it all. Those wanting more about Diana might not.

All in all a solid read, if dated, as the book was written and published before all the information was in. One would need to read something more recent for later details. But I think anyone curious about what happened would benefit from getting this side of the story.

More Writers, Fewer Readers

What to Do?

I’m currently reading iGen by Jean Twenge, which discusses all the ways the iGeneration ( b. ~1995-2012) is different from previous generations. There’s a ton to unpack, and I’m not even very far along in this book, but as a writer I wanted to focus on the data that shows this generation doesn’t read. At least not for fun.

Are we surprised? Not really. Attention spans are getting increasingly short, cut into tiny slices of memes and video clips and text messages. As per the anecdotal evidence Twenge cites, most members of the iGeneration find reading boring because it requires them to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention. The result are slumping SAT scores in reading comprehension, which Twenge says we shouldn’t ascribe as either “good” or “bad” but… I can’t help thinking it’s bad. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers, but the up-and-coming generation can’t be bothered to work their brains that hard. (Twenge suggests ebooks that include videos and are written in very short chapters/info bursts, but really? We have to dumb things down for these kids?)

Okay, okay, so I’m an old fogey. That’s beside the point. In a world where (for good or ill) getting published is easier than ever, we have more content out there than ever, too. And we have fewer and fewer readers interested in buying or consuming that content.

Hmm.

“What about all those YA novels that sell so well?” you ask. Well, turns out it’s a lot of adults reading those novels and not that many, er, young adults.

“But older people still read!” Yeeeesss. But we need new readers to sustain publishing. And not just new content, since there is clearly plenty of that.

“So just write stuff they want to read.” Yeah, except they don’t want to read anything longer than a listicle.* Hell, short stories try their patience.

*Here’s an interesting tangent: iGen’ers don’t party as much, aren’t as into drinking or sex. So all these “old” people writing books for them… Books that look like something out of the 80’s, with parties and sex and alcohol… These books don’t reflect the current teen experience. Write a book entirely in text messages and memes and you’d be closer to the mark. And they’d be way more likely to read it. Especially since it probably wouldn’t take as long as reading it in prose form.

Bottom line/takeaways: the youngest generation isn’t reading books beyond those assigned to them at school (and sometimes not even that much). They have short attention spans and aren’t interested in an activity that takes time, patience, and concentration. We have more books and writers than ever and fewer readers. [Yes, I know those who do read often read avidly and voraciously, but again, we need new readers in order to sustain writers and publishing.] Already magazines and newspapers are desperate, and publishing is next in line; only people writing pithy (and short) articles online will be safe. And because trends move more quickly than ever, even then one is only likely to be a brief success.

Where am I going with this? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been writing much lately anyway. I’d already seen success (as I personally define it) as unattainable for me. So this data only reaffirms that I made the right choice by walking away. The situation is only likely to worsen.

Then again, once enough writers quit the field, those left might still find an audience, eh? Good luck out there!

Books: You Are a Badass Every Day by Jen Sincero

So… yeah. I haven’t read any of Sincero’s other books; I just found this one at the library and thought I’d give it a go. It’s not really a book meant to be read from start to finish, though, I don’t think. It’s more like a daily devotional. Actually, I feel like it needs to be put on one of those thought-a-day calendars or something? Or maybe the book needs to be expanded so that there’s an entry to read each day of the year?

As it stands, this is mostly very short bits of rah-rah encouragement and instructions on various meditation techniques. It’s a lot of “visualize what you want, feel it, and it will manifest” kind of stuff. I can understand and appreciate the sentiment, but I also feel books like these shortchange the real, true hardships some people face in life. Rather than deep and/or helpful, it comes across as somewhat glib. Part of that, I’m sure, is just that the entries in this book are so short; they’re not meant to dive deep. But there is a certain kind of self-help that feels like victim blaming, as though to say, “You could think and wish and visualize and meditate your way out of this if you just tried hard enough.” Um…

I also feel conflicted when books like this one highlight eating healthy foods. I know I should eat healthy, but between books (and online articles) like these and my nutritionist, I’m tipping toward self-loathing and guilt whenever I eat something I want to eat rather than something these people would approve of. And while this book doesn’t dig in when it comes to taking care of one’s body via eating and exercise, there’s just enough there to make the author sound judgmental. I don’t appreciate that.

So this isn’t a terrible book, but I do think it’s underpinned by some not very good things. And the bottom line is, I didn’t find it particularly helpful or inspiring or anything either. It didn’t say anything new or enlightening, just a lot of the same stuff you can find all over the internet and on motivational posters. Meh.

Books: The Ravenmaster by Chris Skaife

Chris Skaife is the current Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. That means he’s in charge of the care for the ravens kept at the Tower due to the superstition that, should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Tower will crumble and England will fall into crisis (or something like that). Here, then, is a quick and engaging read for anyone interested in ravens or maybe some British history. I finished it in one day.

Part memoir, part history lesson, part ornithological research, the book is a blend. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but Skaife’s conversational tone makes it an easy book to sail through. He talks about his time in the military, which is relevant because one must have 22 years of unblemished military service to become a Yeoman Warder at the Tower. He talks about his work at a tour guide, what it’s like to live at the Tower with his family, a little bit of the history and superstition, and of course, he talks about the ravens.

The book, I think, is a little bit out of date already as (if I remember correctly from Skaife’s Twitter feed; he’s @ravenmaster1 btw) Munin has since passed and they have a new raven named Poppy. I kind of wish there were an ongoing blog, but I suppose Skaife is busy enough with everything else not to have to write posts too. (Or maybe there is a blog and I just don’t know it?)

Certainly, the ravens are the best parts of the book. Their antics are highly amusing, and at least once I teared up. But then, I love birds, and corvids in particular—three local crows have trained me to throw them peanuts, and I’m worried about them as we’re moving in a couple weeks. I’m sure I’ll make more crow friends at the new house… I hope…

In any case, I can’t help but agree with Skaife that corvids get a bad rap as birds of misfortune, harbingers of death, etc. They’re quite brilliant, actually, and if they turn up where death is it’s because they’re practical and scavengers. My crows recognize me and also my car; they know if I’m home because of the car, and they’ve been known to follow my car to my kids’ schools because they know I also keep peanuts in the car for them. They’ll follow me on my morning walks, too, so now I often bring a handful of peanuts in my jacket as well. They have me well trained!

In any case, I found this to be a fun read, though I’ve read from some that they didn’t like Skaife’s detours into his military history. But I think everything contributes to the big picture. Still, a book of anecdotes solely about the ravens would be great too. I can’t seem to get enough of that stuff.

Highly recommended for light reading and amusement.

Books: So Anyway. . . by John Cleese

Almost a year ago (late March 2018), my husband and I went to a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that was followed by a Q&A with Mr. John Cleese, who has always been my favorite of the Pythons. So now you know my bias. After said evening, I stopped at the merch table and picked up a signed copy of this book, his autobiography.

This is a very smooth read, as funny and curious and insightful as one might expect from Mr. Cleese. I could hear his voice in my head as I read it. And though I expected to be impatient to get to the parts about Monty Python, I found that I enjoyed pretty much every bit of the book.

I will say that Cleese skims the Python bits. I suppose he means to be diplomatic, but the book ends with this little dabble of Python, leaving me wanting more. Is there a second book? I want to hear about Fawlty Towers and all Cleese’s marriages, but… I suspect that’s not likely to happen. Serves me right, I think he’d say, for being a nosy little thing.

It’s just that he’s so witty and droll, and he was so much fun to listen to at the Q&A, that I can’t help but want more of that.

In short, this is a fun read if you happen to like John Cleese. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to people who only like Python because there isn’t actually that much about them in the book. Anyway, I’m sure there are plenty of other books that cover all that. Mr. Cleese’s life is much more than Python, and it turns out to be all fairly interesting.

You Are Not Alone

I want to put in a little plug for this book that released today. You Are Not Alone is part memoir, part self-help book. It delves into the grieving process, particularly in dealing with the loss of a loved one. I helped edit the book, but even if I hadn’t, I’d recommend it. I’ve never read anything like it. You Are Not Alone is both gentle and strong, just the right mix for the people who need it. And everyone will need it at some point in their lives.

If you’re grieving, or know someone who is, please pick up this book.