Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, The Queen and The Revolution" by Will Bashor

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  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Lyons Press; First edition (October 16, 2013)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0762791538

I was browsing the "new non-fiction" stacks at the library when I discovered this book. I took it home not really expecting much since the time of French Revolution, as tumultuous as it was, is not really "my" taste in historical readings.

Imagine my surprise when I could not put this book down! It's a fascinating look at the French Revolution and the demise of the French Monarchy from the view of Marie Antoinette's hairdresser, Leonard Autie.

I have read my share of historical accounts of the last days of the Monarchy in France, and I have read even more about the life and death of Marie Antoinette, but this book managed to fill in some details that I had never known, and I learned a lot that I had not previously known. This book provides fascinating historical details that always manage to provide a broader picture of a particular time in history.

Leonard arrived in Paris in 1769 with nothing in hand except his "magical comb", a few francs and his ambition. He swiftly became the queen's hairdresser, hobnobbing with the powerful nobles of the land. In the years that followed his arrival as a penniless coiffeur, Leonard even had hopes of becoming ennobled himself.

 It was Leonard who developed those towering head dresses that always seem to be a part of my collective image of Marie Antoinette. As I looked through the plentiful illustrations of this book (something I truly appreciated) I noticed that these outrageous head dresses manage to balance the equally outrageous fashions of the era, something that I had never considered before. Leonard became fast friends with the Queen's milliner and dress maker, Rose Bertin. I wonder if they planned it all in advance? The "too-wide-to-go-through-a-door" hoops in the dress in sync with the "too-tall-to-go-through-a-door" hair styles!

I had not known that there were actually three royal hairdressers named Leonard (nor had I had ever known the name of the person who created these towering hair styles for that matter). Leonard had also employed his relatives and all three were known as 'Leonard'. I had not known that one of these Leonard's actually had a hand to play in the Royal family's disastrous attempt to flee Paris.  The book goes into some very interesting detail about the multiple calamities that doomed this chance at safety, there were so many things that went wrong with the planned escape. If even one of these things had gone right history might well have played out so much differently. The flight of the Royal family is one detail that I had, heretofore, not paid too much attention to, but  I found that these details were riveting as I read this book.

This book is filled to the brim with fascinating, little known, information that is, obviously, the product of many long hours of meticulous fact finding and precise historical documentation. 

I have often wondered what I would have done had been alive during either the American or the French revolutions.  In the past I  thought that I might have been more of a Monarchist, but after reading this book I think that I underestimated the reckless expenditures of the royals in France with the destitution of the multitudes. This was a French storm that had been brewing for a long time; similar, but also quite different, from the American Revolution. In hindsight it seems as if these tragedies were almost fated to happen. 

The Royals knew no other life but that of wealth and privilege. They thought of money as an endless stream that procured their pleasures and pomp, while the general citizens knew only lives of dire, desperate, poverty that left many dead of hunger. The time of the French Revolution was a flood that washed away the foundations of every belief that had once been known as the law. By the time the Royals knew the extent of the problem it was already too late I think.

This book really helped me to see the Revolution in a very different light than I had previously. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it written in a very 'readable' style. As I said, I could not put it down!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

" A Kings Ransom" by Sharon Kay Penman

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  • Hardcover: 704 pages
  • Publisher: A Marian Wood Book/Putnam (March 4, 2014)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399159220

I have to admit to having a particular penchant for large books. The thicker the better as far as I am concerned! Often, when I am looking for something new to read, if I have an option between a book with fewer pages and one with more, I will choose the thicker of the two.

Sharon Kay Penman's "A King's Ransom" does not disappoint in any way . I loved this book!

It's an unstoppable novel that pulls you in and keeps you right smack dab in the middle of the action. I could almost believe that I 'knew' Richard, Eleanor, Joanne and Berngaria, Mariam, Morgan and all of the other 'major players' of Ms. Penman's other novels as I read this amazing account of "Richard, the man". 

(The author likens her previous book, "Lionheart" as the story of Richard, the legend, while this book recounts the story  of Richard, the man")

There are not too many authors who can bring me into the time period of which they write. I can count the ones that do on less than two hands. I sharpened my love for  'historical fiction" when I began to read Ms. Penman's earlier works, and I still feel, that to some degree, I judge other authors by her work - as well as by about three other superior historical fiction authors who I think are  write exemplary, historically accurate, fiction. My devotion to history (non-fiction) sprang largely from my love of historical fiction. I read non-fiction now with as much relish and excitement as I read historical fiction - all thanks to authors such as Ms. Penman. That's an inspiring debt to have!

This is the tale of the last seven years of Richard's life. These years were filled with torment for Richard, his family and the Kingdom. Held as a prisoner of Henrich, The Holy Roman Emperor, Richard was kept in a torturous dungeon that almost sapped his spirit as well as his life. Richard and his mother, Queen Eleanor, overcame every obstacle that was put in their way -  regaining both Kingship and Kingdom through paying a huge, punitive ransom that was followed by years of subterfuge and political rankling. Ricahrd was always at war with France, and the many other dutchies and kingdoms that made up the royal world of the time.

This is also the story of his faithful, but beleaguered Queen Berengaria of Spain; of her loneliness and self-recriminations for not providing Richard with an heir. It is the story of Lady Miriam (a Saracen woman from the Holy Land) and her Welsh love. A love that Miriam came close to losing because of surprisingly modern concerns - those of mixed race children and peer discrimination. 

Richard's sister Queen Joanna features heavily in this book as does her love for the 'heretic' Raimond of Toulouse, a man known more for his tolerance than for his prowess on the battlefield. It is also of course,  the story of the strength, courage and remarkable intellect of Richard's mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. A woman who would have been considered remarkable in our own time, but was truly unique and unexpected in her own time. I would give a lot to have more historical background available about this amazing woman!

I could probably write a short book about all of the reasons why I loved this book, and why I am so sad that I have finished reading it. I hate it when a superb books ends, because then nothing that comes after, for a while at least, quite seems to measure up! This book became a place  for me to get lost in, a place where my imagination could spin clothing and colors, odors and fear.

Richard's death came as almost an after thought. It was happenstance . It came from a wound not acquired in the heat of battle or from a disease contracted in the mire of an infested camp ground, but it came as a 'bolt from the blue'  as he was inspecting his sappers. A wound that he almost missed!  How history might have different but for a few inches! I was especially pleased at the finesse that Ms. Penman used in NOT finishing the book with this wound, for the pages continue to flow for a time after, and follows the lives of the main characters just a bit further down the paths of heir lives. Perfectly done!

One of the things I like the best about Sharon Kay Penman's work is the historical basis upon which she creates her novels. I love reading her "Afterwords" and her  "Author's Note's", although it has been said that the Authors Note is  not one of the aspects of writing that she looks forward to. Ms. Penman's background in the history about which she writes is formidable, as well grounded as any historian can be. I can read with a good amount of certainty that most of the salient facts of the book are truth-based, and every time I read her Author's Notes I learn something more about the historical novelist's burden of accuracy, for a burden it must surely be to so skillfully weave the facts into the thin veil of fiction.

Had Richard lived today he would be hailed as the worlds foremost commander and political strategist. Had Eleanor lived today she would be running for President or Prime Minister. 

This book has been one of my favorite reads in some time. It  offers something to please everyone, and, I believe, will become one your favorite new read too!

I was thrilled to be able to read and review an ARC of this amazing book.
My opinion and review are true to my personal feelings about this amazing book!