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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Immodest Acts- The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown

Title: Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy 
Author: Judith C. Brown 
Genre: Nonfiction - History

While perusing the scattered archival documents of a Miscellanea Medicea file housed in the State Archive of Florence, Judith C. Brown came across a series of scattered documents relating to the interrogations of one Ms. Benedetta Carlini, Abbess of the Convent of Mother of God.  Benedetta Carlini was a self-diagnosed mystic, in direct communication with Christ, in fact the very bride of Christ, and the supposed recipient of one of Heaven's highest blessings: the stigmata.  However, due to her own hubris and often abusive and inflated self-importance, the holes in Benedetta's claims began to be exposed.  Beginning in 1619, a series of investigations were undertaken by ecclesiastical authorities to prove the validity of her claims.  Eventually, not only was it proven that Benedetta Carlini had faked her mystic powers, but that she had engaged in a lesbian affair with another nun under the guise of an angelic deity, Splenditello. Brown's novel is so very valuable as a historical source because lesbianism is rarely found in historical sources.  For an early modern (and before) historian, female gender and sexual histories are complicated when found in source material due to contemporary culture and religious beliefs.  Theologians, the writings of whom are by far the most prevalent of documents and sources to be found of the early modern period, had a hard time coming to terms with lesbianism.  Many of them merely believed that no such thing could exist.  Others insisted that the lack of a penis, the only essential part in copulation, made any instance of lesbian sex not sex at all.  There were a plethora of theories about what sex was, what made sex real, and what role both women and men played in the act.  In the preface to Benedetta's story, Brown manages to sum up some of the most important theologians of and before the events of the book, and these theologian's ideas about sex.  For scholars and students of sex and sexuality, Brown's very succinct synthesis of the historical religious views surrounding sex is very useful. Yet let me say that if you are looking for an earth shattering book on early modern lesbian, you will be disappointed.  The "lesbianism" of Benedetta isn't discussed until the very last section when he undergoes her final investigation.  

Really, the book is less about a lesbian nun navigating a very restrictive and strict religious world, and more about a failed mystic who used her power to falsify miracles and lie about the personal relationship she had with Christ and various angels to elevate herself in the monastic community in which she lived.  Beyond the very small spattering of lesbian conduct, Benedetta's life is far more illustrative of a single woman's psychological need for recognition, and to be extraordinary within a community of similarity and similar sacrifice.  After all, how does one show that they are superior to their religious equals?  Show that they are chosen by God or by Christ for miracles and recognition. What I loved the most about the book, though, was the process of investigation underwent by Benedetta.  I loved reading the questions asked, and how she responded.  I loved reading about the miracles she claimed, and then further in the book how the lies behind them unraveled as her fellow sisters began to come forth with the truth.  Again, this is more the story of a woman who rises in ranks within her very small and limited monastic world, has her lies and deceits exposed, and finally falls into obscurity.  As far as microhistory goes, this book is one worth reading.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

Title: Pompeii 
Author: Robert Harris 
Genre: Fiction - Historical

I'm still working toward my goal of reading as many books taking place in Ancient Rome as humanly possible in my lifetime. That was what influenced me to pick up Robert Harris's Pompeii. Well that and I have read another novel of his, Imperium, and really loved it. In Pompeii, we enter the Imperial Age, August 79 AD. This is a post-Augustus Roman world, ya'll, so the Roman Empire is expanding with ever increasing passion, and the troubled times of the economic crisis and subsequent invasions is a problem still far in the future by a century and then some. Rome is a powerful, proud, and glimmering empire ruled by the Flavian emperor Titus. Rather than take us through a historical drama about the eruption of Pompeii, Harris prefers to use the eruption as context for another sort of story. His tale centers around a young aquarius named Marcus Attilius who has been sent to care for the Aqua Augusta, one of the many aqueducts that flowed through the Roman world. The Aqua Augusta carried water from Terminio-Tuoro toward the Bay of Naples, supplying water to cities like Pompeii, Misenum, and Nola. The aquarius soon begins to notice strange things taking place. First, the former aquarius is missing. Then there is the strange smell of sulfur in the water. Then the aqueduct begins to stop supplying water. Finally the aquarius takes his team toward Vesuvius to find where the break has occurred and fix it. Of course he manages to anger some very important men in Pompeii, most notably a rich former slave who has made a ton of money in retail following the earthquake of 62 AD, which we now know was a foreshock of the impending eruption. What caused the stopping of the water was a massive underground shift of earth, which is just another thing to foreshadow the impending disaster. The aquarius doesn't realize what is going on until it is too late. Then we are taken through the dramatic moments of eruption, confusion, panic, death, and finally end. The cast of Pompeii also includes some notables. Pliny the Elder makes an appearance, and it is only fitting that he does since he and his nephew Pliny the Younger are the pair that supplied us with the most information about the eruption of Vesuvius, through the Elder unfortunately lost his life due to his insatiable curiosity for the natural world. 

Harris isn't, at least to my knowledge, a historian. He does seem to have a great interest in Rome since he has written at least three books that I know of about the subject. Part of the reason I chose to read Pompeii is because I felt Imperium was not only well written, but paid great attention to historical accuracy without coming across as pompous or loaded with historical detail to compensate for an author's lack of historical training. Harris pays very great attention to historical accuracy, juggling his facts with his prose so that his story isn't inundated with too much detail such that it reads like a textbook. The story is interesting, while at the same time you find yourself unintentionally learning things about Ancient Rome: things about their political system, their various classes, social mobility, architecture, resources, knowledge, etc. It presents itself as a intense and informative story, a snapshot if you will, of what happened just before one of the worst natural disasters of Roman history. It connects us more with the past as not something only isolated to facts, details, and carbonized relics, but we get to see the people and life involved.