Posts Tagged ‘book review’


Book Review: The Borgias and their Enemies by Christopher Hibbert

April 12, 2010

Christopher Hibbert writes like an experienced academic–self conscious, solid and consistent prose, unadorned by rhetorical bouquets and ready to get the job done. While his skills are respectfully utilized, it is not his writing that keeps the reader engaged.

Rodrigo Borgia, patriarch of the Borgia dynasty and also known as Pope Alexander VI, is the source from which interest in this book is propagated.  Between his own history and that of his progeny, the audience is simply wowed with the extent to which ambition can soar when opportunity is abundant. I would first like to raise some conceptually provocative questions about the importance of the Borgia dynasty in relation to the contemporary church, and then will  provide a short summary of their influence on history.

Currently, the Catholic Church is being faced with a barrage of sex scandals. For years, it has been clear that there is an association between repressed sexuality and sexual abuse. However, it was unclear whether this was a cultural (as in “American”) problem or something universal.

Now, it is clear that sex abuse is a universal problem. Naturally, these scandals have led many people to question their faith: how can I belong to a church that harbors such atrocities? However, the fact is that the Church has always been corrupt.Not that this fact should be celebrated, but it leads us to wonder why this corruption is less tolerable right now. No, there is no excuse for what has been committed, but crimes such as these (and even worse) have been going on for centuries.

So why are these crimes being publicly acknowledged now? And, is the light of the Catholic faith stronger than the crimes of it’s representatives? Questions such as these accompanied my reading of  Christopher Hibbert’s book, The Borgias and their Enemies.

During the Italian Renaissance the power of the city lay with the Pope and the Pope was not necessarily Italian. This is true in the case of Rodrigo Borgia, originally from Valencia, Spain (Borja in Catalan), who became Pope Alexander VI and ruled from January 1, 1492-August 18, 1503. One might note that this also the period in which Ferdinand and Isabella united Spain into one country and sponsored Christopher Columbus’ explorations (approximately 1492). Nepotism, bribery, and untold amounts of manipulation landed Rodrigo the position of Pope.

Despite his vows, Rodrigo did not hesitate in acknowledging his numerous children. He is famous for his ambitious match making that united his family with the royalty of Europe. His oldest son Cesare entered the papacy and later left to pursue the more lucrative and politically powerful positions available through marriage. Though handsome in his youth, through his uninhibited sexual exploits Cesare contracted syphilis that eventually led to terrible facial scarring and, what some would consider, madness. Cesare would eventually go beyond the influence of his father in his aspiration for power. Cesare is most widely familiar as one of the principle models for Machiavelli’s book The Prince.

While Rodrigo had several children, the second most famous is his daughter Lucrezia. Married, divorced, and with several lovers Lucrezia remained staunchly loyal to her family–despite her brother murdering her favored husband. She was scandalous in her affairs and at times rumored to be a lover to both her father and brother. It is also speculated that she was a murderess and had poisoned numerous individuals. However, in the later part of her life she also put much energy into redeeming her reputation. Because of her scandalous affairs, multiple marriages, and ambitious family she has been the inspiration for many films and books.

Though the Borgia family were able to maintain the powerful hold on Italy, parts of France and Spain while Rodrigo was alive, Cesare lost the protection of the Pope when his father passed away.  Cesare had been a Cardinal, Bishop, Captain General, Confalone, Lord, Count, Prince and Duke. However, after the death of his father he lost his holdings, was exiled, and died. Throughout the years the Borgia family had inspired the enemies through their repressive rule. The Borgia dynasty dissipated rapidly and little remains. In Spain, the Borja palace can still be visited in Gandia, Valencia and the neighboring countryside is reminiscent of its ducal history.

Armas de Borja


Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

April 11, 2010

This is a book that reminds us of what the function of literature is: the weaving of narrative into questions that relate the reader to the nature of being in the world.

Rather than succumb to the temptation to underwrite the complexities of love and death, Niffenegger is able to create a composition that may hold both reader and reality. The duality of symmetry and chaotic emotion is essential to this balance. The repetition of physical doubling does not imply neatness or psychological symmetry. Instead, we find that where death should bring peace, discord resonates.

A typical trope in literature that is graphically explored in the film noir genre is that doubling foretells death. It is as if the act of the individual witnessing itself is too much and the Self cannot handle so much actuality and must retire. Doubling is a process where the Self becomes the Other, who in turn returns to the Self.

The desire for the Self to be merged with the Other, or a love object, is familiar to all cultures across time. To become one, to be completed by love, to fully be consumed is the root of sex, but on in a larger sense directly related to our drive toward death. Death is that ultimate consumption, le petit mort of sex becomes a metaphor for the ultimate union that is all of our fates.

Niffenegger presents these topics in the relationship of the twins. At once the twins have what we all desire, to know another completely. But through their union, so are they destroyed by their desire for sex and love. The overshadowing of death is made uncomfortably clear when Valentina sees death and reincarnation as the solution to their dilemma.

In addition, something that is interesting to note and might not be commonly known is that while Niffenegger thoroughly researched Victorian burial rituals, she also put in her time learning about the afterlife. Her concept of death, and understanding of spiritual impetus are educated by scholars, channelers, and shaman who make it their business to perceive these realms. While I naturally cannot validate the authenticity of these perspectives, I can say that Niffenegger’s concept of the afterlife is grounded in a collective concept and not solely based on her own imagination. Having had my own studies lead me through many of these texts, it was fascinating to see Niffenegger navigate the concepts in a new, creative context.

This book was fabulously written, provocative and continues to resonate within my mind. Niffenegger’s balance of structure and content is true craftsmanship and I look forward to future endeavors. If you are looking for a more complete review of the literature you can check out the New York Times Book Review at the link listed below. A funny coincidence to the NYT review is that it is written by Susann Cokal, who taught at Cal Poly, SLO while I studied there: