The Books of 2016, #12: The Borgias: The Hidden History, by G. J. Meyer

The_BorgiasG.J. Meyer has a shtick. He writes “provocative” histories about “provocative” subjects that are mostly designed to help him stack cheddah by serving as the basis for “provocative”, historical-ish drama series on cable TV.

You may recall his earlier book, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, (and, man, revel in the sheer clickbaitiness of that very title) which was the source material for the BBC series, much like The Borgias provided the basis for Showtime’s canceled series of the same name. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it entertaining, but also ludicrous. Entertaining simply because you’d have to work very hard to write a boring book about the Tudors. Ludicrous because of the second aspect of G.J. Meyer’s shtick: his books almost always go against the “conventional wisdom” and sport theses that make pure academic historians spit blood. For example, the gist of The Tudors was, really, that Henry wasn’t an absolute bastard of a monster. Somehow. When, in fact: he totes was.

Likewise, The Borgias: The Hidden History, in which Meyer tries to argue that the Borgias were not the monsters that almost all of history has made them out to be, but were rather just typical of any ennobled family of the time in how they used their wealth and power to reinforce each other and that, further, much of the horribleness attributed to them is outright false. To Meyer's credit, I think he makes a much stronger case here than he did with The Tudors.

The book makes its case by alternating chapters between the main chronological narrative of the three primary Borgias (Rodrigo the Pope, Cesare the alleged inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and Lucrezia, possibly the most vilified woman of the Middle Ages) and what I’d call “context” chapters. The context chapters are quite useful in terms of situating the reader in how, say, the Papacy worked during the era in which the Borgias were active with it. Likewise, he explains Italian politics, international diplomacy… basically any topic where the reader may have an understanding of how it operates _today_, but NOT how it operated then. So these chapters help educate the user AND reinforce one of Meyer's main arguments: that while a lot of what the Borgias did may seem unsavory to modern mores, they were not at all out of line with contemporary standards (an argument Meyer makes, I think, successfully over the course of the book) and, actually, were near-saintly when compared to other major figures of the day (this argument, not so much).

At any rate, the framework is very solid and keeps the user properly informed on the context needed to understand the narrative events as they unfold.

As for that narrative, I wish the writing of it were more exciting. For being about an era positively brimming with strong personalities, amazing new art, sex, epic violence, etc., the book is a bit of a slog to get through.

Part of the slog is due to the voluminous chat about sourcing interspersed throughout. To Meyer’s credit, most of this is segregated from the main narrative in a way that makes it easy to skip over if source-talk ain’t your jam. I think this is partially an over-reaction to the eyerolls that greeted his thesis about Henry VIII in The Tudors being actually a nice guy, and partially the usual work of a historian going into detail about their sources to validate their interpretation of them. I found it interesting, and believe he did an effective job of highlighting how his sources (and, to be honest, primary sources on the Borgias are remarkably limited so he’s quite thorough about it), once analyzed for bias, actually rather strongly support his own arguments. You may disagree, but I didn’t have that sense of “wow, this author is really contorting things to make it work here” that I sometimes get when reading through a writer’s own analysis of their source materials as related to their argument.

Overwhelming sourcing chat aside, Meyer does move the reader along from the rise of Rodrigo from minor Castilian nobility to leader of the Church, through Cesare’s brilliant but notorious and violent rise and even more notorious fall, and finishes up with a good discussion of the whorification of Lucrezia. While the least “action-packed” part of the story, the sections focusing on Lucrezia were the most interesting to me, as they are basically a textbook for how shoddily any woman who rose to any sort of prominence could be expected to be treated both by her contemporaries and by later writers. Of the three main subjects of the book, I think Meyer makes his most compelling case regarding history having given these folks a bad rap when it comes to the unfortunate Borgia sister/bargaining chip/marriage prize.

So, yeah, I think Meyer does a solid job of making his case, if overselling it a bit with both Rodrigo and Cezare, in this book, but really wish he had somehow injected the spirit of the age he is covering into his writing on it. People and events this interesting shouldn’t turn into quite so much of a slog when set down on paper.

The Books of 2016, #11: Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict In Korea, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager

Brothers_at_war

This book, frankly, exhausted me. In terms of the information presented, it's very good; you're not going to find a better English-language one-volume history of the entire period in which the Two Koreas have existed. She places the war itself in the proper context of the long-view of Korea's divided history, and gives much more focus to Korean impetus and sources than you'd usually get in the American-centric histories that dominate the reading lists here. That said, though; it's just a bit of a slog to _read_. The level of detail occasionally approaches overwhelming, and Jager doesn't provide the best narrative flow in which to situate, comprehend, and retain that detail.

To start with, if you don't already have a good grounding in the war itself, this book is not going to give it to you. For example, there's much more in this book about the rebellion of POW's at Koje-Do than there is regarding, say, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The latter is covered, but not to the depth of events elsewhere. And that's FINE; I believe her whole point is to restore the agency the Koreans usually lose in English-language histories of the conflict, and therefore she chooses to focus more on events that haven't been covered well before. Arguably, in terms of KOREAN history, the rebellion at Koje-Do mattered more than the retreat from Chosin. Just know that going in, and read something like Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter" to get grounded on the war itself.

More problematically, even though she does present a lot of detail overall on the war era, it's provided in a weirdly staggered way that makes it hard to follow the actual chronological flow of events. Or at least it was for me.

That said, the book also succeeds on a lot of fronts, particularly on the level of new information presented regarding the domestic South Korean front and the entirety of the Communist side. While again obviously focused on presenting the Koreans as their own actors with their own methods, she does not shrink away from showing that the Rhees and Il Sungs of the time had their actions strongly circumscribed by what their ideological big brothers would allow. For all of the loud trumpeting of the North Korean autarkic ideal of "juche" they have subjected everyone to over the decades, the historical record makes it clear that, at almost no times throughout its history, has North Korea been able to decide entirely on its own course. Rather, the South Koreans have had more success making their American patrons react to their own actions than the North Koreans ever did at getting the Chinese or the Soviet/Russians to theirs.

Jager also does well in presenting an honest picture of the economic race of each Korea in the post-war era; it sounds surprising to consider that North Korea was actually probably ahead of the South Koreans economically until the mid-1960's, even after being bombed mostly flat by the American Air Force in the war, but the South Korean leadership was that bad at caring about or knowing how to improve the lot of the average citizen for quite some time.

I enjoyed Jager most when she discusses how the poor economic performance of early South Korean governments led to civilian dissatisfaction with western-style democracy and, instead, resulted in support for the Communist cause that seemed to be doing a better job of raising the standard of its people at the time. This carries into the reaction and repression that stripped away rights from the South, but also provided the stability necessary for genuine economic growth to finally occur. In turn, that increasing wealth empowered the people to where they were able to force a return of democracy. Meanwhile, throughout, the North simply became increasingly poor, isolated, and unstable.

Overall, I can give Brothers at War a qualified recommendation; if you're well-versed in the war itself that is the dominating event of this entire era, and can deal with the occasionally confusing and meandering nature of the narrative, this book will fill in the periods before and following the war better than anything else you're going to find in English today. If not, I'd recommend reading some dedicated histories of the war itself first, and/or waiting to see if anybody else decides to try and replicate Jager's work here in the next few years in a clearer, more cohesive fashion.

The Books of 2016, #10: The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, by Susan Wise Bauer

Medieval_worldThis is a weird book to review as it's not a standard, single-topic narrative history. Rather, each chapter focuses on a different slice of the world that makes sense to narrow in on topically, with the whole group of chapters slowly moving forward in time. So, for example, every fifth-ish chapter will revisit what's happened in, say, Korea since the last chapter on that area.

Over the course of the whole book, you get a pretty damned good overview of everything that happened of note in every major civilization region across the globe over the couple hundred years this book covers (the same basic idea holds for the previous entries in the series as well). There's an almost unavoidable weighting of text in favor of European civilizations, just due to the simple fact that there's more written source material to work with for them (Bauer made clear in the intro to the first book of the series that she had to limit herself to civilizations that left written records; there's no room in her scope for archaeology or trying to interpret, say, whatever the hell the Harappans were up to in India, or what the bulk of pre-Colombian America was doing). That said, she obviously cares to give as much weight to non-European civilizations as the material can allow for, and does that well.

Even as carefully as written a book such as this must, due to the vast scope of the topic being covered, be a wide but shallow pool. Bauer presents a pretty amazing level of detail on each cultural area over time, but if you're looking for explosive new interpretations or thoughtful analysis of larger trends, you're not going to find it here.

I like this series best as an accompaniment to deeper books I'm reading at the time; like, if I want a wider context on what all of Europe or the world was like during the time period covered by, say, the Third Crusade, I can get that from Bauer's series.

So, for the well-read historian, the series will serve as a great refresher on areas the reader may be weaker on or have forgotten about. But it will work best for the novice; if you haven't cracked a history book since your college World History AP course, but are interested in catching up, this is the first series I'd point you to.