Young Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of Power by Leah Redmond Chang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Young Queens by Leah Redmond Chang is a fascinating and beautifully braided story of the lives of three queens “as complex and flawed human beings, their potential co-existing alongside their faults and frailties.”
“Young Queens follows the interlaced lives of Catherine, Elisabeth and Mary over the course of two decades. Telling their stories as one reveals patterns about women and power that we may miss or discount when assessing any of them in isolation.”
I chose this book as my most recent read due to my interest in verifying the accuracy of some of my favorite TV series and films like Reign (2013–2017), Mary Queen of Scots (2018), and The Serpent Queen (2022). After reading Young Queens, all of these works will require a rewatch.
This book is so fascinating and fun (if you’re a history nerd like me)! I found it every bit as delightful as the elaborate films and series! It’s not easy to write nonfiction that includes well chosen details and paints such a rich picture of history but is also thoroughly entertaining with gorgeous prose and flow. This book, a glass of wine, and a hammock in my backyard made for the perfect summer reading experience.
Whatever aspect of these queens lives is of most intrigue and interest for you personally, it’s in this book. From the perils of travel via carriage to new lands, the complicated issue of trust amongst royals, the gross ignorance of the times of the human body and its functions, the author deftly sorts through details large and small and presents a captivating look at these brave and bold young queens from all angles.
I found it interesting how mental health wasn’t even considered in the 1500s. The behaviors and emotional issues that would have been the result of oppressive patriarchy and the trauma of bodies and lives being currency with very little daily autonomy would be so great, but were often written off as laziness, bad habits, or a symptoms of a physical ailment.
One example of this is an observation of Elizabeth, at age 14, after her marriage to the 34 year old King Phillip, “There were other signs of disorder, hints that Elisabeth’s daily habits were less than healthful. Sometimes Catherine found Elisabeth self-indulgent, ready to ‘take to her bed as soon as she felt the least bit ill’. She neglected to exercise. She had a particular fondness for meat and a bad habit of snacking too much, which Catherine believed brought on the dreaded vomiting. Others in Elisabeth’s circle also noticed these bad habits.”
With limited tools and knowledge, people relied heavily on folk medicine and religion for support. “In the sixteenth century, people believed in the four humours, the medical doctrine preaching that the health of a person depended on the proper balance of four liquids coursing through the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. A mild predominance of any one liquid determined temperament. A person dominated by blood, for example, might be ‘sanguine’ or cheerful. A person tending towards bile might anger easily. A more severe disequilibrium among the humours, however, was the basis of disease.”
What a trip reading Young Queens! I am in awe of the author. I imagined her in libraries, pouring over letters and texts, fully immersed into the lives of these women. This is truly one of my favorite nonfiction reads in a long time. I would definitely recommend to fans of historical nonfiction, Catherine de’ Medici (my favorite), Mary Queens of Scots, and Elizabeth of Valois! My favorite genre is generally fantasy, and this world of queens and kings truly satisfies that craving too.
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Rainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Truly brilliant, honest, queer stories told without judgment of the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes of the human experience. Rainbow, Rainbow by Lydia Conklin takes us inside queer and trans characters’ minds with raw awareness. It took a few chapters for me to adjust to the white-hot honesty, but I settled into a tempo of gratitude for these truths. They were like a map to some of my own memories of adolescence, past relationships, perceived mistakes or contradictions, and the shadowed aspects of all humanity.
It can feel disturbing to read about life’s most undiscussed internal battles and societal issues, and that’s exactly why this book left me contemplating the vital importance of bearing the discomfort of painful truths so we can see with clear and open eyes what’s essential for our growth. Maybe if we dared to be this honest and open with one another in day-to-day life, we could heal wounds and lessen the transmission of unhealed pain from person to person through every aspect of our societies.
Each essay helps us see through another’s eyes what it means to navigate bodies, identities, relationships, needs, and desires all while constantly evolving and changing within and without. Most stories want to promise us some kind of certainty. I know who I am, this story will show you my struggle and my resolution – that’s what we commonly see, but it’s not how we actually function. Rainbow, Rainbow flows more like real life. There aren’t neat resolutions or comforting moral lessons. It is raw, true, often ugly, not precious but sacred because we are so used to seeking inspiration in ideals and washing our hands clean by denying the messiness that is the human experience.
I would recommend this book to lovers of creative nonfiction and memoir, LGBTQIA+ readers, and fans of authors like Melissa Febos and Carmen Maria Machado.
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Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is my first time reading anything by Melissa Febos, and now I’ve vowed to become a Febos completist!
Body Work by Melissa Febos offers creative nonfiction essays about the vital importance of writing about trauma in a society that shames people into silence and the transformative internal work that goes along with reclaiming your story. We delve into how to write honestly about sex, how the process can make us more aware of the difference between internalized misogyny and our own truest desires, how to write about other people without destroying them or ourselves in the process, and some of the deeply spiritual aspects of writing.
While reading this book, I was also taking an online course in creative nonfiction. As a newbie, I felt frozen, staring at the blank page, questioning whether I could really write about trauma. I wanted to write about sex, queer sex, dissociation, growing up an unusually precocious and sensitive child, the pervasiveness of patriarchal oppression, and I needed to make it compelling and honest and to “excavate events for which I had been numb on the first go-around.” I saw myself in Febos, and seeing her thrive and heal and do so through writing gave me a framework to visualize what I want in my own creative life. Body Work found me at the exact moment I needed it most.
One of my favorite essays in Body Work is A Big Shitty Party: Six Parables of Writing About Other People. I feel relieved to have read this essay before publishing anything of note! Febos shared her own mistakes, regrets, and shifts in perspective with such insight that my own immaturity as a writer felt impossible to ignore. I had ideas for essays that had long been brewing that weren’t necessarily cruel nor untrue, but they could sting someone. Febos reminded me, “There are good essays that there are good reasons not to write,” but also, “…a difference in individual truths is not always a conflict. So long as we don’t try to speak for each other, there is room in our house for more than one story.”
I’m always looking for books that illuminate the experience of gifted children (a term that’s not always appealing, and yet we don’t have any other highly recognizable terms for intellectually advanced kids and adults), as these children tend to have difficulty seeing themselves reflected in the world. She describes her heightened perceptivity, openness to spiritual experience, early advanced reading and writing abilities:
“I wanted to be a writer very young because writer was the only role I could see myself occupying in society, the only one that might hold everything that I was: queer, overly emotional, burdensomely perceptive, reluctant to do any kind of work whose purpose was opaque to me, ravenous in ways that made me an outlier. It was an occupation that seemed to offer respite and relief, but also was connected to the sublime—it offered the gift of self-forgetting, a transcendence on the other side of which lay insight. I did not think to compare this with any description of religious experience, because I had not read any. Now, it seems obvious.”
My copy of Body Work is so laden with highlights, it’s impossible to pick out the most profound or exciting quotes. I felt magnetically drawn into the writing world of Febos with each essay. This book is like a course in itself, and I’m sure I’ll read it dozens of times over the next few years both to learn and measure my learning and just to hear the voice of someone who actually gets it…someone who has done the work, knows the work never ends, and sees transformation and art as necessary to one another.
I recommend this book to writers of all experience levels, and to anyone who has ever considered telling their own story through memoir. If you consider yourself an intersectional feminist, queer, contemplative, and literary, this book is a dreamscape of inspiration.
Thank you, NetGalley, for this ARC!
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