This was an interesting, fast-paced, and enjoyable read. Although I question some of the author's conclusions about Jesus of Nazareth, I think the boo...moreThis was an interesting, fast-paced, and enjoyable read. Although I question some of the author's conclusions about Jesus of Nazareth, I think the book is well worth reading. It's as much--if not more--a history of 1st Century Palestine and the tensions between the Romans and the Jews, and between various classes and sects of Jews, as it is a biography of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. I suspect that much of the internal conflict between Jewish sects and political/economic classes, as well as the internal conflicts in the early Christian community, are overly simplified. But it's a good introduction to the time period and major political/religious/philosophical movements.
Aslan's premise--that Jesus of Nazareth did not conceive of himself as God-made-flesh and advocated the overthrow of the Roman order and the Jewish classes collaborating with it, is partially persuasive. He makes a strong case for the apocalyptic and militant fervor of the times, and it is certainly reasonable to posit that Jesus of Nazareth preached in the same vein as other self-proclaimed messiahs. Aslan also makes a persuasive argument that the development of Jesus as the God of love and peace was a reaction to the trauma of the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of the second Temple, and the subjugation of the Jews by Titus.
But Aslan's locating of Jesus as one of a number of militant messiahs also highlighted the main weakness of his central premise (at least for me). If Jesus of Nazareth was like the other preachers/messiahs, why did his ministry endure beyond his death? What was so compelling about it that not only his followers remained faithful but that they were able to convert others who never knew Jesus? Aslan doesn't provide an answer to that question.
Still, this is an engaging and thought-provoking book, and it's gotten me interested in reading more about that time period. (less)
Robert Massie does a great job of bringing Catherine to life in this biography. I'm not a student of Russian history, but that did not impair my under...moreRobert Massie does a great job of bringing Catherine to life in this biography. I'm not a student of Russian history, but that did not impair my understanding of Catherine and her times, or my enjoyment of this well-written book. Approximately half of this book is devoted to the years before Catherine became empress. These early years are gripping. They are also easier to follow than Catherine's years as an empress. This isn't surprising because, as Catherine's responsibilities grew, so did her activities and the people she interacted with. It became more difficult to remember who was who as the biography progressed.
Another, probably inevitable, drawback was the tendency to cover a topic out of chronological order. This was most notable when Massie writes of the final partitions of Poland. Chronologically, some of the content predates Potemkin's death, yet Massie covers the material in one of the last chapters of the biography, well after he writes of Potemkin's final days. It's difficult to avoid this sort of problem when writing about political leaders, as they are frequently involved in many different events simultaneously. Massie handles the challenge as well as can be expected.
I wish the publisher had included a couple more maps. I would have liked a map of Catherine's Russia in its entirety, as well as a map of Europe, showing the borders of the various countries, to assist in following the territorial acquisitions of the relevant powers.(less)
This isn't quite a 4-star book for me, but it comes quite close. Shirakawa has spent a lot of time listening to Furtwangler recordings and speaking wi...moreThis isn't quite a 4-star book for me, but it comes quite close. Shirakawa has spent a lot of time listening to Furtwangler recordings and speaking with those who knew him (while, of course, also relying on good primary and secondary sources). He clearly sympathizes with the conductor and greatly admires his work. As someone just beginning to really appreciate Furtwangler, I'm glad that Shirakawa spends several chapters exploring Furtwangler's recording career (much of it post-WWII).
Aside from his outstanding musical gifts, the most notable thing about Furtwangler is the decision he made to stay in Germany during the Third Reich. Shirakawa sets forth Furtwangler's reasoning effectively, and he highlights the dangers that Furtwangler increasingly faced. The author also spends significant time on the cost of Furtwangler's decision--including on his reputation (then and now) in America and the scorn to which he was subjected by artists/authors/musicians who left Germany after the Nazis came to power. Did Furtwangler do the right thing by remaining to preserve what he considered to be true German art from the depredations and degradations of the Nazis? It's hard to argue with Shirakawa's conclusion that Furtwangler did a great deal of good--both for individuals and the general public--by remaining. And also that Furtwangler did what he could to not be officially associated with the regime. But Shirakawa never really explores whether Furtwangler was aware of the use to which he was put by the Nazis, and, if so, how he could justify being perceived as ratifying the Nazi's attempt to redefine music.
I also felt that Shirakawa never really explained how Furtwangler survived until almost the end of the war before having to flee Germany. Himmler (head of the SS) hated him; Goebbels and Goering both disliked him; and Hitler seems to have been frustrated by him. Was Goebbels' and Hitler's admiration of his musicianship enough to overcome his noncompliance with Nazi requests, and his open disagreements with policy? Possibly, but it's never quite clear. The ambiguity of Furtwangler's power in Nazi Germany is made manifest by the fall of (Cornelius?) Vedder, a Himmler associate and agent who shepherded Herbert von Karajan's rise. According to Shirakawa, at least Goering and Himmler were behind Vedder and Karajan's swift climb to prominence and rivalry with Furtwangler. But somehow Furtwangler was able to engineer Vedder's fall, which conveniently had the effect of hindering Karajan's ambitions. It's not at all clear how Furtwangler could have pulled this off, and Shirakawa's account isn't revealing.
Finally, although time was spent at the beginning of the biography on Furtwangler's non-musical life (his relationship with his long-time secretary, his many love affairs), that falls by the wayside as Shirakawa recounts the Nazi years. It was never clear to me how Furtwangler came to know and love his second wife, who brought 4 children from a previous marriage into their home. Or what relationship he had with any of his children, including his multiple illegitimate and step-children (other than a couple of short anecdotes from his one legitimate child at the end). I would have liked to know more about the private man.
Still, this biography is well-researched, well written, and (mostly) does justice to its fascinating subject. (less)
Carr's history of the Wagner family is a genuinely interesting and enjoyable read, but it does suffer from the sheer scope of its topic. As each succe...moreCarr's history of the Wagner family is a genuinely interesting and enjoyable read, but it does suffer from the sheer scope of its topic. As each successive generation married and had children, the Wagner legacy--as carried on by his family--both grows and dissipates.
The early chapters detailing Wagner and Cosima's years together have the benefit of focusing on the couple and key figures in their life. Carr deftly illustrates how Cosima turned the admiration surrounding Wagner into a living cult that has survived Wagner's death for over 100 years. As each successive generation matures, Carr's tale naturally expands, but it is impossible to discuss each new addition to the family with equal (or close to equal) depth. Understandably, Carr focuses on some of the most dramatic personalities--the English children-in-law (Chamberlain and Winifred), Friedelind, and Wieland. Of those individuals that Carr covers in any depth, few are likeable.
In addition to learning more about certain branches of the family, such as Isolde and her children, I would have liked Carr to have spent more time on (1) the important period immediately following Wagner's death and Cosima's assumption of power at Bayreuth, (2) why Cosima froze out her daughters in favor of their brother, (3) how Bayreuth was re-established after WWII, and (4) the work that was, and is, performed at the Festival.(less)
This is a well-written analysis of Elizabeth's most important emotional relationship, as well as the most enduring one of her lifetime. Gristwood may...moreThis is a well-written analysis of Elizabeth's most important emotional relationship, as well as the most enduring one of her lifetime. Gristwood may sometimes give the Dudleys the benefit of the doubt, but she does not appear particularly biased, especially in light of the beating that Leicester's reputation has taken over time. I liked her thesis that Leicester grew apart from Elizabeth over time, and may have been largely content to do so. I wish Gristwood spent more time on the relationships between Elizabeth's councilors, as I felt those sections gave me greater insight into the Elizabethan court.(less)
This "history" of so-called "notorious" queens of England is nothing more than a gossip column in book form--with all the superficiality and factual e...moreThis "history" of so-called "notorious" queens of England is nothing more than a gossip column in book form--with all the superficiality and factual errors one would expect from a gossip column. There are several problems with the book. First, each entry manages to be both too general for the knowledgeable reader and too vague for the newcomer. For example, in the introductory chapter leading to the Wars of the Roses queens (Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville), the author (Elizabeth Norton) summarizes the historical background in approximately 1.5 pages. That's far too little to help a Cousins' War-novice make sense of what was going on at any given time for each queen. The political situation is poorly explained, and the queens' tales lack context. At the same time, Norton doesn't do much analysis of each queen's life, instead relying on variations of the following themes: (1) She wouldn't have been judged so harshly if she were a man; (2) As a foreign-born queen she was without friends to defend her/As an English-born queen, she was without powerful friends to protect her; or (3) She didn't understand/realize how deeply she was disliked. Although non-conformance with gender stereotypes no doubt impacted the perception of certain queens in particular (Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou are the most obvious examples), that's not the only explanation for the way these women were viewed.
Second, it appears that Norton has never heard of any sources other than chronicle writers. Many modern historians have been able to mine a lot of information from things like Exchequer records or Pipe Rolls, but the author doesn't appear to have reviewed any of those sources or the works of authors that have digested them. Perhaps more surprisingly, the author doesn't appear to have used sources such as the Paston Letters, which give us a middle-class view of England during the York-Lancaster conflict. Incorporating these sources would have made each portrait deeper and richer.
Third, every time Norton can adopt the gossip of the times (or the later chronicles), she unhesitatingly does. So Eleanor of Aquitaine probably had an affair with Geoffrey of Anjou and then hated Henry II for his extramarital affairs, and Isabella of France had a passionate affair with Roger Mortimer, regardless of whether there really is evidence of any of these rumors.
Fourth, there are factual errors that should have been easily avoided. For example, to show that Isabella of France never got over Mortimer, the author has her buried beside him at Greyfriar's Church. Even if Mortimer was ever interred there, his body was relocated on his widow's request (probably to Wigmore, though Mortimer's burial site is now lost) about a year after his death. Isabella died 28 years after Mortimer, between 25-27 years after his body was moved. This isn't difficult information to unearth. A Google search would turn up the information in less than 5 minutes.
Fifth, the author is hampered, as all authors of these time periods are hampered, by the absence of sources that provide detailed information regarding people's motives and states of mind. Still, it's lazy writing to say things such as, "Isabella must have felt . . . ," "Anne must have been worried . . . .," or "Catherine must have been terrified . . . ." Maybe they were, or maybe they thought/felt/experienced something completely different.
This isn't good or even mediocre popular history. It's poorly researched and written, and superficial to an alarming degree. There are better surveys to read. I recommend avoiding this one.(less)