The Best Books about Anne Boleyn

On May 19, 1536, an English queen was executed. She really hadn’t done anything wrong, other than failing to give her king the son he craved. So, in order to get rid of her, some trumped up charges of adultery – treason at the time – were thrown at her and she was executed by beheading. The queen was, of course, Anne Boleyn.

668,Anne Boleyn,by Unknown artist Unknown artist

People may think of many different things when they think of Anne Boleyn. I tend to think primarily “mother of Elizabeth I” and “she was framed.” Others may see her as a victim (yes, indeed), as a homewrecker (no, read more history), an advocate for Protestantism (certainly, and likely the catalyst for Anglicanism, having owned copies of Tyndale and showing them to Henry at the right moment), generous to the poor (yes), and many, many other things. She was a skilled musician, dancer, and linguist. She was a genuine Renaissance woman. I think her full impact on history may never be fully understood.

Anne was born at her family home in Blickling probably in 1507 (some scholars say 1501) and grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was about 7 years old, she went to Austria at the invitation of Margaret of Austria to study with her wards. In 1514, she went to the court of Queen Claude of France, where she stayed for several years. In early 1522, she returned to England, where she became a lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon and caught the eye of Henry VIII. The rest, as they say, is history.

There remains a fascination with Anne Boleyn, and rightly so, in my opinion. By most accounts, she dazzled. She was witty and enjoyed dancing, riding, and hunting. She enthralled a king, and then she died for it. It’s hard not to be fascinated by her. Other people would seem to agree, if we take the many books written about Anne as evidence. Below are a few of my favorites.

Nonfiction:

31088The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Canto) by Retha Warnicke. Warnicke was one of my college professors. She is a little crazy, and some of her theories about Anne are not really mainstream. But she is a fierce defender of Anne and for that, I have a soft spot for Warnicke.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. Ives and Warnicke had disagreements. A lot of them. I approve of academic nerdrage.

Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession by Elizabeth Norton. This is a relatively short, accessible scholarly work by one of my favorite historians.

18111981In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Greuninger. This is a really cool book which informs readers not only about Anne, but also about the places she lived and traveled. It tells about each home, manor house, church, chapel, castle, abbey, and so on that Anne ever went to. It shows each room of those places, as much as is possible to do so now. It really helps bring Anne to life in ways that simply writing about her cannot, because it shows up the places where she lived and laughed and grieved. An absolute must-have. I wish more books like this existed for other historical figures.

Fiction:

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. It’s been years since I read this one, but I still remember it as the one that really sparked my interest in the Tudors.

10108The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers: A Novel by Margaret George. Not about Anne Boleyn, per se, but she featured prominently, of course, and Margaret George is awesome. There are few authors who can tell such a terrific story while also being accurate.

The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper, about Mary Boleyn, the other one. Published about 20 years before the other book about Mary Boleyn that most people seem to know about, and which I’m not mentioning because it was awful, this one is nice because it gives readers the big events but entirely through the POV of Mary. None of the major characters we know – Anne, Henry, Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell, etc – appear unless it is when Mary encounters them. I liked it, too, for its more optimistic tone.

Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes. One of the older books, but still super interesting. This is not one of the most accurate books you’ll ever read, but it does do a fantastic job of giving Anne a rich internal life, something that not all historical novels really do, oddly. Well worth a read despite the quibbles with the accuracy.

13540943The Queen’s Promise: A fresh and gripping take on Anne Boleyn’s story by Lyn Andrews. This one focuses on Anne before she met Henry, and the love affair she may have had with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Told primarily from Percy’s perspective, readers get a version of this familiar story from an entirely different angle than we usually do.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a little torn at including this one. Too many people use this as an example of how things really were, but Mantel herself has said no, it is her perception of how Cromwell might have viewed things, which makes sense since it’s from his POV. But it is a terrific read and it’s my blog, so I’m adding it because I liked the book and I want it on the list.

There are sooooooooooooo many other books, both fiction and nonfiction, I could have added here, but I had to rein it in or this would just get out of control. These are just a small handful of my favorites. Are there any others you would recommend?

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Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
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Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

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Twitter: @JudithStarkston

It Isn’t Fun to Care. Do It Anyway.

In my personal life, I try to practice Stoicism. I recognize that there are many things – most things, in fact – that I cannot control or change. I let go of those things and focus instead on controlling what I can control or change, which mainly centers around my own reaction to a thing. I can’t control traffic but I can choose not to get mad about it and enjoy listening to my audiobook instead. I can’t control that it feels like living on the sun in Arizona, but I can either accept that it’s hot here, or move. Recently, though, I went to a talk given by Paul Nicklen, biologist, photojournalist, and arctic explorer. As I listened to Nicklen’s presentation, I felt my Stoicism crumbling a bit more with each word he said.

Nicklen showed us a video he had taken of a polar bear who was starving to death. The poor creature, who should have weighed close to 1,000 pounds or more, clocked in at roughly 200 pounds and was too weak to do more than stagger towards Nicklen, who had waited for several hours nearby. The bear eventually came over to some garbage cans the film crew laid out to check desperately if there was food inside. Nicklen did not tell us if the bear ever found enough to eat, though the implication was that it did not and eventually died. Attempting to be apolitical, he was careful not to connect the effects of climate change to the bear’s situation, while at the same time making sure to be clear that it was precisely because of climate change that the bear had no ice to live on, and that it was the destruction of its habitat that had caused its starvation conditions.

Nicklen discussed, too, the effects of the use of drift nets upon ocean populations. The fishing industry uses drift nets that are up to a mile long, which are opened and then set loose in the ocean. The fishing boats then come along to collect the nets to see what they caught. Often, they catch dolphins, whales, sharks, rays, seals, and other non-food sea life. Many of these are endangered animals; many are highly intelligent and sensitive. Some are caught intentionally, such as sharks for shark fin soup. We had the dubious honor of seeing footage of a shark getting its fins cut off, while still alive, for exactly that purpose, and then thrown back into the water to flail helplessly. I couldn’t blink, because blinking would have made my face leak and possibly made sounds come out my mouth.

Nicklen’s talk was not all about the wanton death and destruction of the oceans and the arctic regions. The majority of it was awe-inspiring and filled with breathtaking images he’s taken over the years. He showed us many images of what a polar bear is supposed to look like in all its huge glory. They can be silly creatures as well, for as huge and deadly as they are. One enormous male Nicklen showed us made himself a giant snowball, put it on top of his head* (he was supremely proud of himself, judging from the expression on his furry face), and then snuggled up with it in his arms and fell asleep. This delightful encounter was documented by Nicklen’s lens. He showed us what a happy seal looks like, fat and sleek, her pup a butterball of soft white fur, so full of milk it can’t stuff its tongue back in its mouth. When elephant seals are weaned, they get really lonely. If you lay down in the surf near them, they will come and want to be close to you and will lay on your lap, even though they weigh around 500 pounds. The oft-maligned leopard seal, frequently described as violent or aggressive, provided another glimpse into arctic animal life. Nicklen got in the water with a female leopard seal moments after she’d killed a penguin to eat. She charged him, nothing but gaping jaws and teeth, but he shut his eyes and curled up and after a few minutes, she settled down, confused. Then she swam off and came back a few moments later with another penguin, which she tried to give to Nicklen. The penguin got away and she retrieved it, prodding it toward him again. He did not take the penguin for fear the power dynamic would change him into a competing predator to the seal. Instead, she kept bringing him penguins, each one more wounded or weakened, until finally she brought him a dead one and literally put it on his head. During his last swim with this female seal, she turned on her back and made a sound at him that is usually reserved for their pups. Maybe she thought he was a particularly inept pup and was trying to help him. These encounters, too, were captured by Nicklen or one of his crew.

Nicklen’s purpose is to show that animals are often misunderstood and that many instances of “animal aggression” is simply humans panicking or imposing and stressing the animals out. When the animals are allowed to dictate the encounter, using a modicum of common sense of course, it is far less likely that anyone will be harmed. They have personalities and feelings, not to anthropomorphize anything. But to be careless with our actions has far-flung and devastating impact on the environment and the creatures that live in it.

I shouldn’t think this would need explaining, but there are still people who deny that humans have an impact on climate change, or who deny that we can change anything. I simply cannot fathom or condone that kind of short-sightedness. We rush to insure our homes if there is even a 1% chance that it will burn down or come to harm. Why wouldn’t we take similar precautions with our one true home, the earth? It is exhausting to care about something so much, but Nicklen made a comment that really struck me during his talk. “It isn’t fun to care,” he said. I agree, it isn’t. But do it anyway.

I realized after the talk that I can still be Stoic about this. I may not be able to control or change these people or their views. I can’t force the climate to revert to pre-Industrial Revolution clean standards with a wave of my hand. But I CAN do my part not to use things that are harmful to the land or oceans. I can help lobby to ban things like drift nets, trophy hunting, and the market for shark fins. I can drive a car that doesn’t contribute to greenhouse emissions that makes the atmosphere hotter, and melts the ice so the polar bears don’t have anywhere to live. There are things we can do, even if they are a little inconvenient. We have to consider if there really is an inconvenience when we are keeping the ecosystem healthy. We can do better, if not for ourselves then for our children and grandchildren. It isn’t fun to care, but do it anyway.

*All the photo links will take you to Nicklen’s awesome Instagram page. 

Vacant-eyed Women, Mattress-Pounding, and Politics: Sexism in Historical Fiction? Do we mention it or keep quiet?*

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

What reader of historical fiction isn’t at least passingly familiar with the statement, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too… ?” Queen Elizabeth’s 1588 speech to her troops at Tilbury is one of the most famous and recognizable of the Renaissance. It would be hard to imagine a modern female politician making a similar speech, though, and any man saying something about a feeble woman’s body would be (and should be) immediately excoriated. Reading historical fiction requires authors and readers alike to set aside modern mores and read with the understanding that times have changed, and be sensitive to the fact that none of us can judge another time period or culture by our own standards. But what happens when those standards get distorted? How do we tell the difference between historical accuracy and outright sexism? Does it even matter? 

In a nutshell, yes. It matters a great deal because authors should avoid bias, while keeping authenticity in mind, avoiding unnecessary sexism, and bringing historical fiction into the global discussion of sexual abuse in a meaningful way. 

Authors have to be careful to check their own biases at the door when writing for a variety of reasons. Naturally, their readers will include at least a few who want as accurate a depiction of the time period as possible. That can be difficult to maintain if modern sensibilities are strongly present in a book set in, for example, Victorian England. It must be difficult for authors, products themselves of more enlightened times – see my own bias coming through – to write about women as second class citizens who are not as intelligent as, or even as human as, their male counterparts. How difficult must it be to write about women as the Angel in the House if she is good, or hysterical and subhuman if she is not good. This raises the question of what makes her good? Is the character a murderer? Or does she simply have a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion? Is the period Ancient Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian? How would women, feisty or otherwise, typically behave in these time periods? It may be tempting to write a woman who flagrantly tells men off, disregards the dictates of her social class, or makes her own choices rather than obeying her father, but she likely wouldn’t have really done that. It probably never occurred to her that she even could do something like that in the first place, and her capacity for actually carrying it out would depend on a variety of issues.

On the flip side, writing male characters has to come with a balance as well. Women may not have had the same rights modern women arguably have now. They may have been considered second-class citizens. Plenty of men throughout history (and now, too, tragically) were misogynists. Aristotle thought women should be “obedient as a slave,” proving that just because he was a philosopher doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a pig; Martin Luther thought women could either be wives or whores, so take your pick; Shakespeare seemed pretty disgusted by the female sex, based on his rants against them in King Lear; and even the enlightened Gautama Buddha apparently thought women were too stupid to understand Buddhism (Saṃyutta Nikāya 4). But there is evidence that many men still loved and respected the women in their lives. Refer to the real life love stories of couples like John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Abelard and Heloise, or even Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer for examples. Writing men as misogynistic blowhards is a dangerous game for authors. If there is evidence to support the misogyny of an historical character, that’s one thing. But to write a character as such simply because he lived in a time when women were not seen as equal poses a number of risks.

There is also a question of authenticity. How accurate is a character’s attitude toward women if he proves himself to be sexist? Is he truly reflecting the attitudes of the time in which the book is set? How is the author determining this? Or is it really a reflection of the author’s own sexism, which is far more disturbing?

Recently, I read a traditionally published book by a well known author that was set in the 14th century. Naturally, I didn’t expect that women would be given the same rights as the men in the story. In keeping with medieval society, I anticipated that women would expect generally to be submissive to their fathers or husbands, stay home and tend to children and the house, and so forth, even if they are salty ladies who feel free to speak their minds. I did not, however, expect the rampant sexism that I found in the book. In just the first few pages, this particular novel made multiple references to women’s vacant eyes being a big turn-on. To whom? To the protagonist? Or to the author? Similarly, there were multiple juvenile references to sex, such as mattress pounding or hide-the-sausage, which seemed like something that would appeal to young boys rather than experienced, adult readers. The sheer volume of remarks in this vein makes it sound as though the author himself finds vapid, vacant-eyed women ready for some mattress galloping a turn-on rather than his revolting protagonist. Is this a fair evaluation of the author? Perhaps not. I’ve never met him. He may be a perfectly lovely man, but his writing, in this novel, makes me automatically wonder. This, in turn, makes me not want to know him, or his books, in the first place.

Another risk historically inaccurate sexism (what a strange thought!) in historical fiction poses to authors is already posed above: the loss of readers. This is the 21st century. As stated previously, experienced readers of historical fiction know how to leave modern customs and social mores behind when reading books set in different time periods. But we do still live in a time when women generally are treated as humans and movements such as #MeToo exist solely to amplify women’s voices. Of course, feminism didn’t exist in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, or in the Victorian Era. However, it exists now, and although readers today want authors to operate within the parameters of historical accuracy, they also expect authors to hold fast to acceptable attitudes towards women as much as possible. 

Do readers have a responsibility anywhere in this? Of course. We, as readers, have to be willing to adjust our expectations appropriately. If I’m reading a medieval fiction and it’s not listed as historical fantasy, I expect the characters to behave within a certain set of parameters and for the major events of the period to be accurate. If I’m reading a book, for example, in a series called Lady Sherlock, I’m definitely not going to expect rigid adherence to Victorian social customs for each and every one of the characters. Though I must say, the novels in that series are more rigorously researched and accurate than the novels in some other series I’ve read which are touted as straight historical fiction. My expectations as a reader were confounded, as were just about every gender role known to humankind, which is a good thing. Using literature to address social issues and gender relations is one thing; using it as a way to be sexist and gross is an abuse of readers’ trust and, in the 21st century, simply unacceptable.

Sexism is an issue that needs to be addressed, and literature is an ideal place for the discussion. Making accurate historical fiction part of that discussion can play an important role in the larger, modern conversation taking place globally in places such as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Don’t use your writing platform to amplify sexism. With well-researched and sensitive characters, historical fiction can provide meaningful, relevant contributions to a powerful topic. Be more than an author – use your voice to be an advocate and ally. 

It is a difficult subject, but one that is starting to cause concern for many (female) readers who are beginning to voice that if it is not necessary for the plot, or to further develop a character or situation – then why is a scene of a derogatory or disturbing sexual nature there?

*Originally published on Helen Hollick’s personal blog, Of History and Kings. If you haven’t read her blog, you should do so immediately, if not sooner.

Fear: Trump in the White House

41012533A Review by Cathy Smith*

It was 1974, and we were all standing around a small television in the lobby of a hotel in Mexico City. President Richard Nixon was resigning from the office of President of the United States. My uncle turned to my mother and asked her thoughts about Watergate and President Nixon. Mom was not a big supporter of Nixon. For her, it was personal. During the 1950s, we lived in Bolivia. My father was one of the chief advisers to President Paz Estensoro and was involved in all the diplomatic meetings with any state officials from the United States. It was during one of Nixon’s visits to Bolivia as Vice President of the United States that things got very personal for my mom, and both my parents lost all respect and support for Nixon.

It is funny how the mind works, and how certain memories come back when watching current events in the news. In this case, all the memories of Watergate, Nixon, and my parents surfaced as I followed, and continue to follow, the drama of the Trump administration from the elections leading up to 2016, the midterms of 2018, the Mueller investigation, and Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear: Trump in the White House.

Bob Woodward is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose most notable work was with colleague Carl Bernstein when the two men blew the lid off the Watergate scandal with their investigative reporting. Their book, All the President’s Men, chronicles their work on Watergate. Woodward has worked for the Washington Post for over 45 years. Of his 19 authored or coauthored books, 13 have been number one national non-fiction bestsellers, and nine have been on recent U.S. Presidents (Woodward, n.d.). Fear: Trump in the White House was sold out before the book’s actual publication date. I initially bought the Audible version of the book, and later picked up a hard copy I found hiding in a stack of books at the local Costco. When going through checkout, the cashier told me I was lucky to have found the book because all the local bookstores sent representatives into Costco on the release date to purchase the Costco copies. He was surprised they had missed one. According to Woodward (n.d.) Fear: Trump in the White House has “sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week in the United States and broke the 94-year-first-week sales record of its publisher Simon & Schuster” (para. 1).

Fear: Trump in the White House presents readers with a report of the Trump White House based on “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources” (Woodward, 2018, “Source Notes” pp. 363-390). Woodward presents readers with an inside look at what seems to be a White House in chaos. The story starts eight months into Trump’s term as President of the United States. Woodward opens with an account of a letter draft to the President of South Korea which would pull the United States out of KORUS, the United States – Korea Free Trade Agreement (Woodward, 2018, p. xvii). Woodward (2018) continues to explain in detail how Gary Cohn and Rob Porter “worked together to derail what they believed were Trump’s most impulsive and dangerous orders” (p. xix). From this example, Woodward takes his readers back to the beginning of the Donald Trump story, his rise to power, and how the White House drama of this administration continues to unfold in the headlines today.

Before the campaign, there was Steve Bannon, a scruffy looking, unkempt, right-wing media executive and strategist who was executive chairman of Breitbart News prior to becoming a chief strategist and senior counselor for Donald Trump. Bannon is a nationalist and holds to his America-first viewpoints. Bannon’s America-first viewpoint became the foundation for Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign, which included three points of focus: (1) to end mass illegal immigration (2) bring manufacturing back to the United States, and (3) get out of unnecessary foreign wars (Woodward, 2018). Bannon also encouraged the Trump campaign to focus on the fact that Donald Trump was not a politician, and that the campaign should focus the attention mostly on the Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Throughout the book, Woodward provides example after example as to how Bannon influenced the campaign and the policies that laid the foundation for the White House we see today. However, even Bannon’s influence was limited when it came to Trump’s real inner circle, which is inclusive of the Trump family that include his wife, Melania; his son, Donald (Don) Trump, Jr.; his daughter, Ivanka; and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In an article from CNN, Betsy Klein (2018) reports, “In a White House where the loyalty of some is in question, family members are among the very few Trump trusts completely” (para. 4).

In the first part of his book, Woodward describes a situation where Melania strongly refuses to sit to one side of Trump, with Ivanka on his other side while he makes a tearful apology about misogynist comments made years earlier. Although Melania did not sit next to Trump for this staged apology recommended by Kellyanne Conway, Melania did release a statement to the public expressing her dissatisfaction with his comments, but also shared her forgiveness in hopes that the public could do the same (Woodward, 2018). As I read this section of the Woodward’s book, I remembered the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. I thought about how this played out in the media when this story broke and how it continued to haunt Hillary Clinton throughout her Presidential campaign. Later in his book, Woodward then describes the West Wing’s views of Melania Trump and President Trump as having “sincere affection for each other” even though “she operated independently” (p. 174). According to Woodward (2018) “They ate dinner together at times, spent some time together; but they never really seemed to merge their lives” (p. 174).

Don Trump, Jr., who took over his father’s private businesses when his father took office, is said to be Trump’s most vocal advocate (Klein, 2018). Woodward’s mention of Don, Jr., focuses on his meetings with the Russians at Trump Tower in the middle of the presidential campaign. Closer to the inner workings of the Trump White House are both the first daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Woodward references this power couple throughout his book, illustrating the influence they have on President Trump. Woodward clearly leaves his readers with the impression that although Ivanka was on the President’s staff, she did not see herself as a staffer. Woodward describes an altercation between Bannon and Ivanka when Bannon calls her out on working around the Chief of Staff, and not following protocol by working through him. Woodward (2018) states that Ivanka was not shy about using her title as the first daughter when she assertively shouted at Bannon that she was not a staffer, but the first daughter. According to Maxwell Tani (2017), Jared Kushner, as one of Trump’s senior advisors, was “tasked by his father-in-law to solve some of the world’s most complex and confounding political problems domestically and abroad” (para. 2). Throughout Fear, Woodward makes mention of Kushner and his involvement in the Trump White House.

Outside of Trump’s immediate family, Woodward’s list of players, who seem to come and go, is extensive. Woodward does a great job weaving the narratives of the various players into the story of this White House administration. Woodward discusses the campaign, the Mueller report, immigration, trade, and the role this administration plays in the world and at home. Woodward paints a picture of how Trump was selected as the Republican candidate and then molded into the image of what the powers in control of the money wanted as the President of the United States. The chaos exposed by the reports from Woodward’s deep background interviews reflects not only the fear that some Americans may feel from reading his book, but is also reflective of the fear that individuals may have from working in and with the current White House administration.

After I finished listening to the book, I found that I needed some time to process and digest everything that I had just listened to. I decided to turn on the radio. The 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song “At the Zoo” was playing.

The monkeys stand for honesty | Giraffes are insincere| And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb| orangutans are skeptical | Of changes in their cages | And the zookeeper is very fond of rum | Zebras are reactionaries | Antelopes are missionaries | Pigeons plot in secrecy | And hamsters turn on frequently | What a gas, you gotta come and see | At the zoo… (Simon, 2018, lines 16 – 29)

The timing of the song was a perfect ending to a well-written book. The Trump White House, as Woodward describes it, was (and still is) a zoo. As I continue to follow the news and the current state of the nation, I remember Watergate, and the scandals of a President my parents did not respect. I turned off the radio and sat in silence for a few seconds until another song/poem came into mind titled “‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Collaboration with Phillip Glass and Paul McCartney.” I wondered about the agelessness of the songs and poetry of the Fifties Beat Generation and the Rock music of the Sixties. My mind finally wandered to Bob Dylan and I asked myself are the times “A-Changin”?

 

References

Klein, B. (2018). How Don Jr. became the President’s most vocal defender. CNN Politics. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/15/politics/donald-trump-jr-defender/index.html

Simon, P. (2018). At the zoo. Paul Simon. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from https://www.paulsimon.com/song/zoo/

Tani, M. (2017). Here are all the duties Jared Kushner has in the Trump administration. Business Insider. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.businessinsider.com/what-does-jared-kushner-do-in-trump-administration-2017-4

Woodward, B. (2018). Fear: Trump in the White House. Simon and Schuster: NY, NY

Woodward, B. (n.d.) Bob Woodward. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from http://bobwoodward.com/

 

*Cathy Smith is a Full-time Faculty member at the University of Phoenix. She has taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten through college, as well as ESL. She herself is a bilingual citizen and advocates for Dreamers and DACA. She has many Things to Say about politics and the current Agent Orangenikov currently invading the Oval Office.

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Little Red is hiding a Glock in her basket!

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