Brigdh (wordsofastory) wrote,

Hello everyone!

I aten't dead. Just extremely, extremely busy in these odd times. I hope you all are also well! And I hope that soon my life will calm down a bit and I can return to checking DW on the regular.

In the meantime, I have been doing a lot of reading, though alas, not so much with the typing up of my thoughts afterwards. Since I can't leave my house, I've been focusing on finally getting around to reading all the big tomes on my bookshelves, the ones that usually I put off because they're too big to fit into my purse. They, uh... mostly haven't been great. Further proof that I am far too easily seduced by a pretty cover. Anyway, here's two I did manage to write up!

Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney. A novel set in New York City in 1870s. Georg Geiermeier is a recently arrived immigrant, and his various adventures manage to hit upon every single remotely memorable thing happening in the city at the time: the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, P.T. Barnum's circus, the explosion of the Staten Island Ferry, working on the sewers, laying cobblestones on the streets, German immigrants, Irish immigrants, Black immigrants, female doctors, secret abortionists, new factories, old Brooklyn farms, street life ('Gangs of New York' style), a night in the Tombs, sex work, life in Five Points, the freezing solid of the East River, and on and on. Gaffney's determination to namecheck every element of her research ends up feeling somewhat ridiculous, and by the end I started to laugh whenever she brought in yet another historical event.

All of this pointless scene-setting provides the background for a fairly bland narrative: Georg falls in love with Beatrice, a member of the Whyos gang, which leads to a rivalry with Johnny, the leader of the gang who wants Beatrice for himself. Meanwhile, a sadistic arsonist/serial killer becomes convinced that Georg is to blame for his own incarceration, and is determined to get revenge. None of these characters are particularly interesting, and the plot never manages to do anything surprising. It's not improved by Gaffney's odd stylistic choices – occasionally butting in with an omniscient narrator to inform us of things like "but Georg wouldn't know that for another two years" or "none of them suspected that the problem was already solved". She doesn't do this often enough for it to become a consistent feature of the book, but it appears just often enough to give a further distancing effect to any emotion the reader might have been developing for the characters.

Overall it's cliched, it's frustrating, and it's mostly just boring. Is there anything exactly wrong with Metropolis? No, not really. Are there thousands of better historical novels out there better than this stale melodrama? Very much yes.

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone. Nonfiction about Joanna I, who ruled Naples (her titles as ruler of Jerusalem and Sicily were more hopeful than accurate) in the 1300s, and who has been considered 'notorious' ever since due to rumors that she had her husband violently murdered. And possibly also for her role in inciting the Western Schism (that time when the Catholic church had two simultaneous popes, each of whom of course denounced the other as the antichrist).

Goldstone is here to redeem Joanna's reputation, instead showing her as a dedicated, competent, and successful ruler. And also not guilty of husband-murder since, as Goldstone says, if Joanna had wanted to get rid of her husband she likely would have had him subtly poisoned and not publicly attacked by goons to be beaten and hung. It's a fair goal, but unfortunately I came away from the book feeling like I just don't care if Joanna was good or bad. There's dozens of chapters about intricate Italian politics and backstabbing and alliances (and goddamn this is really a book that could have used a Character List; I had such a hard time trying to remember who was who), but none of it seemed to have many long-term consequences, nor was any of it interesting enough to read about for its own sake. A lot of the most fascinating bits in the book were relegated to the status of tangents, when I could have read much, much more about them: the Salerno medical school, which allowed female students and possibly teachers; repeated, devastating outbreaks of the plague; the free companies, roving bands of unemployed mercenaries who were a constant background threat in 1300s Italy; the family of a African formerly enslaved man who rose to become major political figures in Joanna's court.

I think Goldstone would have been better served by including a chapter or two focusing on Joanna's historical reception in the centuries since her life. She very briefly complains that Joanna didn't get an awesome tomb, unlike most members of her family, but that's not enough. The premise of the book is 'I am reclaiming this notorious historical figure for the side of good', but I think the average American has no name recognition of Joanna at all, pro or con. Goldstone needs to actually show us that Joanna was hated, not just tell it. That likely would also have helped with my ultimate not-caring, since part of my problem was that a great deal of the stuff Goldstone dwells on didn't seem to matter much to the grand scheme of history.

Eh, it's not a bad book. The topic is fine and the writing is fine. It's just that I prefer my interesting-facts/amount-of-text ratio to be much higher. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
Tags: bookblogging
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