Monthly Archives: February 2012

Joanna, the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily, by Nancy Goldstone

I know quite a lot about England in the late Middle Ages (1100-ish to 1500-ish). I can rattle off kings, battles, works of literature, major and minor social upheavals, geography and demographics, you name it.

I know next to nothing (relatively speaking) about the rest of Europe, and essentially nothing about the rest of the world, in that same time period. I vaguely know some of the major points, but just as names, not as details.

This book taught me a lot, in other words. Not just about Joanna, although obviously I knew nothing about her going in, but about Europe outside of England and France during the Hundred Years War. And it was fascinating. The constantly shifting balance of powers between the kingdoms, other non-monarchical countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy – not to mention the Pope versus the Cardinals – was dizzying. And Joanna managed to do that and, mostly, rule alone and keep her power for thirty years.

She had terrible taste in men, though. Her first three husbands were not exactly stable, and each one of them signed treaties and promised faithfully not to interfere with the government of Naples. Of course, as soon as they had the chance, each one of them interfered with the government of Naples. Her first husband was an idiot (possibly in a medical sense) who took advantage of Joanna’s illness to release a notorious murderer from prison, and ended up being murdered. Her second husband was a cousin, who only waited about a month before he started physically abusing her in public. Her third husband had spent half his life in prison, and was mentally affected by that – he also physically abused her and then started wandering the world in search of his own kingdom.

But she managed, somehow. She governed effectively, in the midst of an economic meltdown and a number of Hungarian invasions (her first husband was a cousin, and Hungarian, so they had some claims to the throne), managed to sweet-talk three different Popes into various things, and even controlled Sicily for a while – something the monarchs of Naples had been trying to do for at least 50 years.

The book itself, besides being outrageously informative, is very readable. I powered through it, in part because I couldn’t put it down.  By the end, though, I did notice that Joanna was almost idealised: she didn’t do anything wrong, never made a mistake, was never unreasonable. I didn’t come in with any preconceptions about Joanna (unlike, say, Isabella of France when I read Alison Weir’s biography of her), so I don’t know how balanced the book was or what impressions it was trying to correct. I did feel, by the end, that it wasn’t balanced. I’m sure there were negative things about Joanna, and negative reputations and rumours over the centuries – maybe I’ll seek those out now in an attempt to get a fuller picture. At the very least, I’m pretty sure that some people will have seen her merely as a pawn of the various popes, especially the ones that she got on well with, instead of someone working the system and trying to maintain whatever power and status she had.

It was excellent as an introduction (for me) to “my” time period, outside England. I have added a lot of things to my “must research more” list, including Neapolitan history, the kingship of Jerusalem (Joanna held the title of Queen of Jerusalem, but by now it was an honorific; the lack of information didn’t dim my desire to know more about it at all), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Great Schism.

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State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

I loved Bel Canto. Absolutely adored it. I thought that its portrayal of the tensions of a hostage situation were incredibly nuanced, and its depiction of the emotional power of music was incredibly moving. I thought that her prose was very lyrical and flowed incredibly well.

State of Wonder struck me in much the same way. It’s not a hostage situation, there are no musicians (although there is a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice that is fantastically portrayed), but the sense of taking us into an extreme situation and making it feel real, making us sympathise with all the different perspectives without necessarily taking a stand on the morality of any of them, is still there. As is the lyrical prose. It was a joy to read, to immerse myself in the words and the world that she has established.

It’s a complicated world, spanning Minnesota and Brazil and navigating the tricky issues of fertility, research ethics, and truth. Race (the main character is half-Indian, half-white; the doctors are with a native tribe in the Amazon basin) is explored but not one of the major issues of the book, refreshingly. More important are the culture clash issues, connected with but not reliant on race. How do you shift from a lab in Minnesota to a village in Brazil? How does a white woman doctor navigate the politics between tribes with languages she can’t even speak?

More importantly, how to you balance the demands of research funding (and funders) with the demands of the research itself, or the researchers? Who needs to be accountable to whom? And, because fertility is such an issue, there’s also the matter of who is responsible for whom?

The characters are all very complex – but understandable even if you don’t like them. Even Dr. Swenson, who does some pretty horrible and amoral things, is understandable. And she does some very horrible, amoral if not actually immoral things. She also seems to feel that everyone who doesn’t act and react the same way that she does is lacking, or inferior in some way.

Marina is also very understandable, partially because she’s the main character. But while I did understand her, and identify with her, and empathise with her, I did realise (on reflection) that she’s really quite passive. Almost everything that happens in the book happens to her; nothing really happens because of her. Even the action she does take is propelled by other people, and she carries it out with a sense of inevitability: she acts because she can’t NOT act.

But, then, who among us wouldn’t do the same? Who, on being faced with the fact of the death of a friend and colleague, wouldn’t help his grieving widow understand, especially when her request coincides with a near-demand from your boss that you finish his job and retrieve his possessions? Who, on being abruptly taken into a completely alien world and culture, wouldn’t sit back and observe the situation, at least at first, and especially if you were scientifically trained? It’s letting things happen, but it’s also what makes her human.

[Sidenote: I’m 99% sure that Marina is pregnant at the end. Anyone read it and want to weigh in?]

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Filed under General Fiction