Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Legacy by Susan Kay

There's just something about Elizabethan England that keeps me interested in books about the period. This one is a novel, Legacy by Susan Kay.

I've read a lot of books about Elizabeth I, both history and fiction, and I think this is the best historical novel I ever read about her.

Legacy won both Britain's Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize and the Betty Trask Prize for a first novel, and deservedly so. Kay's story is highly readable and presents Elizabeth I as multi-talented, politically shrewd, enigmatic, emotionally stunted, and conflicted. 

The deaths of her mother and stepmother, Catherine Howard, combined with the erratic and often abusive treatment she received as a child from her father who was sometimes loving, sometimes distant, sometimes threatening and never predictable are presented by Kay as the reason for Elizabeth's conflicted relationships with the three men she loved most in her life.

Robert Dudley, undoubtedly Elizabeth's strongest relationship, is introduced early in the novel as one of her nursery playmates. He continues to be her most trusted friend throughout the dangerous period between the death of her father and the death of her older sister, Queen Mary. Kay depicts Dudley as a multi-faceted character who truly loved the Queen and was frustrated by her refusal to marry him.

I won't spoil the novel for you by giving away the last chapter, but I found it quite moving, albeit fanciful.

Fans of historical fiction, particularly of the Tudor period, will enjoy Legacy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman

Sitting in the waiting room of the hospital ICU and at home by the phone waiting for news of my nephew (who ultimately died of injuries suffered in an auto accident) , I did a lot of reading in October and November. However, I didn't have the concentration necessary to post any reviews during that time. 

Much of the reading was pure escapist stuff: re-reading of some old favorites and reading of medieval mystery stories. 

However one of the books I read was Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman. I have always had a keen interest in British history of the Tudor period and particularly the great Gloriana--Queen Elizabeth I. 

Elizabeth's Women is a well-researched history of the women who influenced and surrounded the queen. This is an unusual approach to writing about Elizabeth I because most historians and authors emphasize her relationships with the men around her whether they were her advisors, relatives, friends or "favorites" (presumed lovers).

The author writes about these women in chronological order, beginning with Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, executed by order of her father King Henry VIII, and ending with her life-long friend the Countess of Warwick who was with her on her deathbed.

Elizabeth lived her personal life surrounded by female attendants who literally were with her every waking and sleeping hour, as was the custom of the time. The most influential woman in her life was her governess, Katherine ("Kat") Champernowne Astley, who was her surrogate mother.

Borman covers Elizabeth's complicated relationships with her older sister Mary and her cousin (whom she never met!) Mary Stuart of Scotland. The experiences of  her stepmothers Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard reinforced Elizabeth's fear of loosing power and control through marriage while her close relationship with her father's last wife and widow, Katherine Parr, was fractured by the inappropriate attentions of Parr's husband the roue' Thomas Seymour.

One of the many interesting themes of the book is the evolution of Elizabeth's attitude toward the marriages of her ladies-in-waiting which became quite hostile by the end of her life. Another major theme is the conflict with her female relatives, the surviving Gray sisters and later, Arabella Stuart, who had competing claims to her throne which sometimes threatened her.

Tracy Borman's book is a great addition to any Tudorphile's library. Highly recommended!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Paul Among The People by Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden, a research fellow at the Yale Divinity School, is a scholar of ancient Greek and has translated four books of classical literature, including the Aeneid, into modern English. 

In Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, she uses her own translations of Greek literature from the time of Paul as well as her own translations of his epistles to explain the cultural context within which those writings would have been heard and interpreted by Paul's contemporaries.

Although Ruden is an academic, the book is not a dull treatise, but a fairly lively presentation of the man she calls "the greatest theological genius of all time" in his own time and place.

Pau's views on pleasure, homosexuality, women, relationship with the state and slavery have been--and still are--the subject of dispute within the Christian community around the world. Ruden uses her knowledge of ancient Greek and the literature of Paul's day to illuminate his views on these subjects.

Anyone reading this book looking for support for their progressive/liberal or evangelical/conservative interpretation of these controversial topics will be disappointed. Her conclusions challenge both sides of the church because she demonstrates that the premises underlying the lenses through which twenty-first century Christians are viewing these issues are quite different from those of the first century.

I do not have much background in ancient classical literature and found that sometimes it was hard to follow Ruden's extensive translations, even though she uses colloquial rather than academic language. Also--be warned--some of the selections included, particularly in the chapter on homosexuality, are quite graphic. Personally, I would have preferred to read a summary or description rather than the "real thing." 

Paul Among the People is a creative, innovative approach to understanding Paul in the ancient cultural context. Ministers, educators, academics and other church professionals will find it interesting but I would not recommend it for the average layperson.