I finished this a few days back but wanted to chew on it a bit before trying to sort through my feelings, because! Turns out I have a lot of feelingsI finished this a few days back but wanted to chew on it a bit before trying to sort through my feelings, because! Turns out I have a lot of feelings about the French Revolution, Hilary Mantel, writing in general, writing historical fiction in particular, and... probably some other things.
Once I got past the first 100 pages or so, I had a hard time putting the book down. It was absorbing, and the creeping sense of doom -- the guillotine over your head, if you will (is my favorite line in the book in the cast of characters? Dr. Guillotin, an expert on public health? Maybe!) -- made for a compelling trainwreck that was difficult to look away from. I mostly enjoy Mantel's style, which switches between first- and third-person, past and present tense, and is constantly changing POVs, but she's a better writer now than she was when she wrote this book, and there were definitely places it didn't work for me. I occasionally found it difficult to tell who was speaking (a complaint I did not have with Wolf Hall), the character voices were not well-differentiated, and a lot of the digressions served more as distractions than anything else. I also found myself really wishing she would have chosen ONE character to focus on, the way she did with Cromwell, which made it a lot more personal.
Instead, she focused on three characters: Danton, a misogynist and rapist I was never going to cry about; Desmoulins, who was most interesting but also somehow most frustrating, because we are constantly told what a charming firebrand he is, but every time we deal with him, he's.... not. Everyone stares at him and is like, "What's wrong with you??" And then he goes and has a nap, probably with someone else's spouse. I feel like I was interested in him because of the gaps in his characterization, because of the difference between what we were told and what we were shown, and it's possible that was the point, but regardless, I found it frustrating. Do I need to write some Desmoulins fic now? Heaven forfend.
And the third character is, of course, Robespierre, who is Robespierre. I felt a bit cheated by the end, because although I'm perfectly aware of the fact that the Revolution consumed Robespierre and everyone else, I actually wanted to see things go south for him. I wanted him to get his in the end, and he did not. The book made me bloodthirsty! Only two of the three of the main characters died horribly.
The history nerd in me takes issue with the characterization of the Revolution itself, or the lack thereof, or the long expository passages that didn't clarify anything at all, or the simple up-front explanation that the French Revolution happened because bread was expensive (not.... exactly), or the idea that the royal family was hated throughout (lol no). But mostly I came out of this wanting a book like this except about the women, who were always stealing the show....more
Kind of a strange selection of chapters and topics; mostly they're about some period of western European history -- eg Roman military intelligence orKind of a strange selection of chapters and topics; mostly they're about some period of western European history -- eg Roman military intelligence or intel during the 100 Years' War -- and then there's a totally weird chapter about modern Canadian intel. Obviously I was into it, I'm just saying, it was weird. Anyway, most of the chapters were very readable, up to and including the notes & bibliographies, except the one on cryptography, for which I blame cryptography, not the author. It's difficult to make a riveting narrative out of "then they used math and reasons to transform this nonsense Latin into this more-nonsense series of triangles." My Latin, my math, and my reason is all fairly suspect at this point, so there's only so much I'm ever going to get out of these treatises. One day I might even stop reading them!...more
fascinating look at marriage and courtship from the early modern period on, conclusively proving that everything I learned about conjugal customs andfascinating look at marriage and courtship from the early modern period on, conclusively proving that everything I learned about conjugal customs and mores from romance novels was, in fact, lies. The scholarship is a bit outdated at this point, and in places this is uneven (poor treatment of the middle class, too much economics), but a pretty good read if you're into this sort of thing....more
This is hilariously great fanfiction. The author sets the scene and describes the main characters ("He has now reached middle life, and his face at thThis is hilariously great fanfiction. The author sets the scene and describes the main characters ("He has now reached middle life, and his face at that time would have made no man's fortune") and then launches into overwrought dialogue ("Think how his haughty spirit must chafe under the repeated marks of your displeasure!!") and judgmental asides, including this gem, describing the dress of the women of Francis II's court: But these illustrious ladies consider gloves a royal luxury, and are weak in respect of stockings.
WEAK IN RESPECT OF STOCKINGS. My new go-to sartorial insult....more
Mixed feelings, as usual. I'm aware Richelieu is not the mustache-twirling villain Dumas would like us to believe he is (though now that I say that, IMixed feelings, as usual. I'm aware Richelieu is not the mustache-twirling villain Dumas would like us to believe he is (though now that I say that, I am absolutely certain he twirled his mustache), and so I was hoping for a more human look at him. Instead I got glimpses of him and a lot of 17th-century European history, which, if you are not aware, is the worst. It's endless wars fought by infinite factions which may or may not be religious and which will be different two weeks later. Difficult to keep track of and impossible to write about in any way that doesn't induce maps and charts and a lot of glassy-eyed "wait, what? Why do I care about this dead Swedish guy again??" So anyway, yes, statecraft, a unified France, fine -- not that that was given in-depth treatment, either -- but I wanted less about mercenary armies during the Thirty Years' War and more about That Guy Richelieu. That all said, what's there is pretty good, and Blanchard did as good a job as anyone at writing an overview of the grand war slog....more
The most infuriating sentence in this book is "a grand comparative narrative of European Black Chambers still needs to be written." How can this be? GThe most infuriating sentence in this book is "a grand comparative narrative of European Black Chambers still needs to be written." How can this be? Get on it, early modern historians. That aside, I particularly enjoyed the chapters on cartographic espionage, lady spies, dudes who can't shut up, and more lady spies. Quelle surprise. This is a suuuuper nerdy academic text but a good read with good references if you care about this particularly nerdy thing....more
I was expecting this to be a tedious, misogynistic account (written ~1914) of the duchesse de Chevreuse's life but was pleasantly surprised to find thI was expecting this to be a tedious, misogynistic account (written ~1914) of the duchesse de Chevreuse's life but was pleasantly surprised to find that it did not get tedious until the end! The first half was full of hilarious pearl-clutching about all the licentious living the ladies were doing and a bunch of OTT love letters ("Mon Dieu! faut-il que j'en passe un de ceux de ma vie sans vous servir?!" -- dude, you don't even know this lady) and more exclamation points than I have ever seen in a serious book about how she has been SEEN in PUBLIC with a PROTESTANT eating MEAT on FRIDAYS think of the SHAME she will bring to FRANCE put her in a NUNNERY. Fascinating and funny, and now I really need to read an actual bio that does not spend half its time bemoaning the frailty of women....more
Hmmmmm. This is a history book whose first edition was written in 1937 and so my expectation was not that I was going to be reading a page-turner, butHmmmmm. This is a history book whose first edition was written in 1937 and so my expectation was not that I was going to be reading a page-turner, but I basically read this in one sitting. It's mostly brief anecdotes about terrible spy shenanigans in early modern Europe, interspersed with tedious lists of who paid how much money to whom for what. To the laundress, 300 ducats. To the brother of the chaplain to the ambassador, 50 ducats. Yawn. That one state dinner where the ambassador invited a bunch of diplomats and got them utterly trashed (5+ bottles of wine EACH) and let a spy hide in the cupboard and write down what they said: *___*
As for the rest: It's reasonably well-sourced but terribly annotated; it assumes you read French, Latin, Spanish and Italian; it is focused pretty exclusively on western Europe (there are brief mentions of the Ottomans, who are exotic and strange and savage, and the Russians aren't discussed until they're Westernized); "cryptography" is in the title but relegated to an appendix; and it helps to know your Habsburgs. But if you are, for example, writing about lady spies in 17th-century France, you could do worse than flipping through this....more
This was fantastic and totally bonkers. I wasn't sure how much I'd like it -- first-person present is difficult, but I think was helped in this case bThis was fantastic and totally bonkers. I wasn't sure how much I'd like it -- first-person present is difficult, but I think was helped in this case by the fact of the audiobook and its reader -- but I was pretty immediately sucked in. I found myself thinking things like "well, I can listen to more of the book if I... clean the bathroom!" It was one of those things where it was the first book on the list of available audiobooks with "spy" in the title -- always iffy, but in this case it paid huge dividends.
It starts out as a kind of espionage novel, with Dreyfus convicted and Georges put in charge of counterintelligence even though he's not interested. He keeps investigating, and slowly works out that everything is bullshit -- there's fabricated evidence and forgeries and perjury and betrayal and assassination attempts and sham trials, and eventually Georges is standing up in open court shouting I DEMAND SATISFACTION at a dude who used to work for him and who has accused him of lying. Totally riveting, and now I'm sad it's over....more
This is definitely a fairly general survey, with some conclusions and connections that are too neat or too much a stretch. That said, I really enjoyedThis is definitely a fairly general survey, with some conclusions and connections that are too neat or too much a stretch. That said, I really enjoyed it. It's very much about the people who shaped mid-century Chicago and how they in turn shaped America: McDonald's, Playboy, improv theatre, architecture, the blues, the civil rights movement, African-American literature, and so on. If you're already swimming in Chicago history, this might not be the book for you, but it's great if you're looking to dip your toes in and figure out where to go next. ...more
Maybe if I'd been reading this instead of listening to it, I would not have found it so tedious, but wow, this was a slog. I found it oddly paced andMaybe if I'd been reading this instead of listening to it, I would not have found it so tedious, but wow, this was a slog. I found it oddly paced and inconsistent, and the ending about how great Dodd was seemed to have exactly zero support from the rest of the book. I mean, you've got Dodd feeling useless, the State Department conspiring to get him fired because he's annoying, the Nazis making fun of him for being useless and annoying, and then you wrap it all up with how great he was at his job. What? It just really didn't work for me....more