Tag Archives: G.J. Meyer

Remembrance Day; a time to think, read and learn

Japanese Canadian War Memorial

Japanese Canadian War Memorial

Yesterday on November 11, my husband took the girls to a Remembrance Day ceremony held at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park. Justin’s great-grandfather’s name is upon the cenotaph and the ceremony they attend commemorates the sacrifices Japanese-Canadians made for their country. I always find this interesting in light of the fact that these men and their descendants were treated as foreigners and enemies in the next war and interned in prison camps. But that’s another post. It’s interesting to note, however, that in 1916 volunteers were not accepted in British Columbia, so they travelled to Alberta in order to enlist.

 

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Justin’s great grandfather Masahiro Shishido. I was describing the Kaiser’s mustache to the girls and here Grandpa shows us how it’s done.

When I ask the girls what Remembrance Day is all about, they parrot, “To remember the soldiers who served their country in war,” which is what they’re told at school. When I ask, For which war was Remembrance Day created in 1931? they’re not sure. They’ve heard of Hitler but that’s about it. They know I like history so they begin asking for a complete rundown of World War I and World War II – over breakfast. I’m not equipped to deliver a history lecture but I did my best with the little I know. I am in the process of learning about World War I, which is further back in history and therefore harder to grasp and understand. I have a whole list of books I’m working on, although the best starting place has been Ken Follett’s recent history trilogy that begins with Fall of Giants and World War I. Winter of the World deals with World War II and the third one, Edge of Eternity, is about the 1960s and the changes of that era. Ken Follett has a great way of giving immediacy to history and is one of the best authors for providing a coherent framework on which to hang further research.

My plan is to try to teach the girls a bit of history at a time and to try to bring that sense of immediacy to them. I think it’s important that World War I was the first mechanized war. Men from farms and villages who had never seen machinery were now overwhelmed with technology. People who had never heard so much as a firecracker were stunned by colossal explosions. Horses were used in the war, which seems incredible now.  Shell-shock was the old term for PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, only of course in the 1910s people didn’t understand what the soldiers had truly endured, unless they’d been there themselves. There are so many things to learn about this war and it spread out in all directions. I’m actually feeling that I should learn more about the Crimean War to get more background on World War I! It never ends, does it?

I think that books and movies are the places to start. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is good, as is Passchaendale. Legends of the Fall is on my list and also possibly Gallipolli, although World War I in the Middle East is an entire category on its own.

For books, Charles Todd’s series about a Scotland Yard detective who is a veteran of World War I is well done, as is Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. I remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school and not understanding a bit of it because there was no context. None of us had any clue about the history of the novel. I should reread that.

For nonfiction, on my list I have Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace, Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, A World Undone by G.J. Meyer (I love this author), and Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson. But there is a whole slew of nonfiction books on the subject so – lots of reading to do.

I think for the kids, perhaps the best introduction might be Rilla of Ingleside, one of the last books in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. They absolutely loved Anne of Green Gables and we will continue the series although I’m waiting for them to get a bit older. In Rilla, war touches Anne’s family with tragedy. It’s the saddest Anne book and L.M. Montgomery’s books are full of tragedy so that’s saying something.

I’m also considering an introduction to World War I poets. Every single school Remembrance Day ceremony features John McCrae’s In Flanders Field, which is beautiful, but I take mild exception to the third verse which exhorts the living to continue the war, to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” The poem was so popular it was used as war propaganda to whip up support. I prefer Siegfried Sassoon, who used poetry to express his disillusionment with those who perpetuated a jingoistic and useless war. His poems powerfully convey an enormous grief and bitterness. No pro-war propaganda here; Sassoon was seriously angry and you get a very sharp sense of that in his poetry.

I am aware that Remembrance Day is a day we keep aside to honour those who felt it was their duty to try to protect other people, regardless of which specific war they served in. I also feel that it our responsibility to take the time to consider those who volunteer to be prepared to protect us and our system of belief. And of course we think about the lives of those who sacrificed themselves in the service of their country.  But I tend to think most about the First World War, the war that shocked the world and changed us forever.

 

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Back to Back Borgias: Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and The Borgias (The Hidden History) by G.J. Meyer

One of my favorite things is to read a historical novel and then follow up with non-fiction  on the same topic. The novel pulls me in, and the nonfiction fills in the gaps. If I were a history teacher, this is how I would engage my students. So here we have a novel on the Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and then a nonfiction treatment of the family by G.J. Meyer, whose book The Tudors I absolutely loved. See blog post here.

Blood and Beauty opens with the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy. Instead of a modest acceptance of the election results, he exults in his new office, sort of like an over-the-top Oscar winner. He immediately begins planning and plotting, insisting his son Cesare become a cardinal even though he will have to do a lot of plotting to pull that off, and building family alliances through his daughter Lucrezia and sons Juan and Jofré. There is lots of political finagling and positioning, interspersed with sessions in bed with his mistress, Giulia Farnese, who is the beautiful blond wife of his nephew! There is much about the political situation of Europe at the time, and the careful balancing of power between France, Spain, and the various principalities that made up 16th-century Italy. Great stuff. If you have the vague notion of the Borgias as this evil, conniving family, with Lucrezia as an incestuous poisoner and Cesare as equally evil (he was the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince, after all), you will be pleasantly surprised by this more sensitive treatment of a very human family, especially the portrayal of Lucrezia. Interested in learning about the Renaissance? This novel is a good way to start.

(spoiler alert)

Until you read G.J. Meyer’s The Borgias. And realize that all that Borgia hype is just anti-Catholic propaganda! I was very surprised by this. Apparently a few scholars have dug deeper and discovered that 1) Rodrigo Borgia did not father Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré, they were his sister’s kids 2) nepotism was normal in those days and if they weren’t his kids it’s not exactly nepotism, 3) they didn’t poison anybody, 4) they didn’t commit incest, 5) Cesare did not kill Juan….and so on. Most importantly, the rise of anti-Catholicism which led to Martin Luther and the Reformation meant that there were writers who had an agenda: blackening the Catholic church in order to justify the Reformation. Why the Borgias, specifically? For one, the pope who succeeded Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) was one Giuliano Della Rovere (Pope Julius II) , who was beaten out for the papacy twice, once by a man to whom Borgia was close, then Borgia himself. He hated Rodrigo Borgia. So when he finally got on the hot seat, he was intent on discrediting his predecessor. In fact, he tortured known Borgia associates hoping to extract “damaging material.” Nothing came up but no matter; rumours were good enough and Julius would reward those who provided such fictions. There’s a lot of this in history (i.e. Tudor propaganda vigorously disseminated in order to make Henry VII feel secure, which is why Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a villainous hunchback; it was the kind of thing that pleased a Tudor monarch), you’d think we’d have learned by now. When writers seeking to advance the cause of the Reformation needed colourful stories to illustrate the corruption of the Catholic church, they easily found all this Julius-promoted scandal and didn’t really question their sources. G.J. Meyer, on the other hand, is very clear about his sources, so I’m inclined to believe this version. He points out that most of the scurrilous stories about the Borgias were written by people who weren’t even alive during the Borgias’ lifetimes. The stories began once the Borgias were dead and the next Pope, a real hater, wanted dirt. When it comes to supposedly-incriminating Vatican documents, he points out that Vatican documents were often forged, and the Borgia-scandal Vatican documents are not even good forgeries. He maps out where Rodrigo Borgia was when the children attributed to him were born, and it’s clear that it was geographically impossible for him to impregnate Vannozza when he was in Spain and she was in Italy. Lots more of that, and it becomes very clear that the Borgias were an interesting Renaissance family, but that’s about it. Although when you look at his achievements, Rodrigo Borgia was a very good Pope! Rather boring, actually! So if you’re enjoying the HBO series The Borgias, just remember to take it with a grain of salt. It’s about as truthful as The Tudors series was.

As a history of the Renaissance, The Borgias is a great book and improves vastly one’s understanding of the political landscape of Italy and Europe. There are many explanatory chapters interspersed with the narrative that deal with the rise of ambassadorships in Europe (started in Italy!), the emergence of global exploration as a powerful mechanism by which a country might rise to prominence (Portugal), and similar Renaissance-related topics which enhance one’s understanding of the narrative.

I’m loving G.J. Meyer’s work and can’t wait to get into another of his books, A World Undone, which is about the First World War.

(please excuse some clunky prose; I’m WAAAAY behind on blog posts and am trying to get it all done before the Christmas rush starts so I’m not editing very carefully)

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Deep in the 16th Century…..The Tudors by G.J. Meyer and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Also Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child

I’m only just coming up for air after a week of immersion in 16th-century England. I’ve been glutting on books while on vacation. It’s making me a dull dinner partner as I’m either reading or sitting with glazed eyes meditating on what I’ve read, and I can’t wait to get back to my books (e-Reader). It’s such a luxury to be able to read for hours at a time; this fall and winter have been so busy I haven’t been able to post on things I’ve read; and the reading I’ve done has been of the fits-and-starts kind, a few snatched minutes here and there. Not satisfying. But a week in Tudor England with two brilliant writers? Heaven. Add in 25 degree weather, sunshine, palm trees and the fact that the kids are old enough to play without hawklike supervision? I know, such decadence. I’ve been hoarding books in my e-Reader and finally, finally, I’m diving in.

G.J. Meyer’s The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty is a wonderful piece of research and writing on everyone’s favourite dynasty. I’ve read many books on this period of history and this book is one of the very best I’ve read. Full of insights and thought-provoking observations, G.J. Meyer has given me a whole new way to view this family. It’s interesting that popular culture has decided to present the Tudors in a specific way – we have certain accepted images of Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth I, but Meyer’s book looks critically at these images and now I do too. Chiefly, the idea that Elizabeth was a peace-loving monarch who cared about her people. Propaganda! She was nearly as bloodthirsty as her father, and that’s saying something. I’ve always thought that the reason Elizabeth was reluctant to execute Mary Queen of Scots was because a) she didn’t want to kill her own cousin, and b) she didn’t want to set a precedent of executing an anointed sovereign. B) is closer to the reason that Meyer gives, that with Mary gone, there would be little reason for the Protestants to keep her, Elizabeth, on the throne, and Elizabeth’s aim was to survive and to maintain the status quo. She was always struggling between two opposing religious camps; the Protestants and the Catholics. Her version of the church was one that apparently only she believed in, so she was forced to maintain a balancing act between the two opposing forces. Conversely, Mary (known as Bloody Mary) was not as savage as we’ve thought. Why? Read the book. It’s a big mouthful but tasty, chewy, and totally worthwhile.

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to her wonderful Wolf Hall, continues the story of Thomas Cromwell as he copes with Henry VIII’s disappointment with Anne Boleyn and his desire to be shed of her and to marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell is another incredibly fascinating historical character and it is great fun to see this episode through his eyes. Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell is complex, thorough, and you can’t help respecting him. In fact, I adored him. I’m worried that Mantel’s next book with deal with his downfall over Anne of Cleves.

I took a deep breath, then I selected Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child from my Reader list: an icy plunge into the wilderness of early 20th-century Alaska – the contrast of the realistic setting with the fairytale storyline is captivating. What happens with a mature childless couple, having gone to Alaska to start new lives, make a snow child, then find a real little girl who flits back and forth between them and the forest? Is she a real child, orphaned, or is she a supernatural being? A beautifully retold fairy tale. I finished it in a day, holding my breath the whole time. Exquisite. Wonderful.

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