Let's face it, even by 16th century royalty standards Henry VIII was not a good husband. He was accustomed to getting his own way - absolute monarchs are like that, a bit of a romance junkie, known to sample the ladies in waiting on occasion and fixated on having a son to inherit his crown. Then there is that unfortunate habit of executing former loved ones.

Kyra Cornelius Kramer promises to explain this all to us in Blood Will Tell. Which is part of the problem. When the title of a book promises an "explanation" a certain of amount of explaining is required, particularly if the explanation is medical. The average reader does not possess an advanced degree in medicine so antigens and syndromes will need to be explained. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, the author of this book chooses to give the most cursory once-over-lightly to both the all important Kell antigen and McLeod Syndrome. Is McLeod common? Rare? Hereditary? Does one inherit it from one parent? Is it recessive? Co-morbid? Fatal? You won't find any of the answers here. You won't even find a reasonably detailed explanation of its symptoms. This "explanation" doesn't get an explanation.

Given the weakness of the medical case, it is somewhat amazing that the weakest links in this thesis are Kramer's interpretation of Henry's behavior and analysis of events. She offers no evidence that Henry was any more tyrannical than his father (Henry VII) or his contemporaries. She lists the number of executions during his reign but does not compare this to what was going on elsewhere. Just to put this in context, at the same time Henry reigned Ivan the Terrible was earning his nickname Tsar in Russia and Francis I was ordering entire villages and cities destroyed on grounds of disloyalty. Kramer never convinced me that, as she contends, Henry's behavior suddenly changed when he turned 40 (she offers no real evidence) nor that he was any more paranoid than his fellow monarchs during this time of extreme religious unrest.

The examination of Henry's wives is something special. Maybe Kramer is reaching for a feminist interpretation of the famous half-dozen but if that's the goal, she fails. Karen Lindsey's Divorced, Beheaded, Survived covers this idiosyncratic ground much more effectively. Kramer doesn't take into account the various factions at court or the accepted policy of putting attractive women in the king's path in hopes that her favors would earn favors for her family. She sees Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as victims (and, in Kramer's mind, practically girlfriends if only fate hadn't intervened) and Jane Seymour as a petty schemer. Why? Because that's how Kramer - clearly not a historian - sees it. She judges 16th century behaviors by 21st century standards and prejudices.

Kramer presents Henry's domestic arrangements as if history were a soap opera. The influence of Wolsey, More, Cromwell and Cranmer influence never registers. The complex political theories of Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, and Alison Weir make no impact here. There are no factions, no powerful advisers, no foreign intrigue; just a boy and his hormones, and his Kell antigen. 

What we have here is a serious of suppositions, ifs and sweeping unsupported statements such as:
"Henry would probably have left a very different mark on history if his mind had remained intact." Like, what? On the other hand I did learn some interesting things about how the medical community viewed female reproductive organs - think upside-down-inside-out male organs. Still, Kramer's aside that "It really wasn't a great time for medical wisdom" is a juvenile assessment.

Anyone familiar with Tudor history beyond the least demanding historical fiction is strongly advised to stay away. Even when Kramer is sticking to known ground, her replays of the events of Henry's life reminded me of the famous Heaven's Gate review - "like a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Despite interesting phrases such as "obstetrical tribulations" this book is not recommended for any reader.

Inquiry Into Me, Me, Me

This is a frustrating book. It is frustrating because of what it is and what it is not. It is not, emphatically not, an entry in the true crime genre. It contains none of the staples of true crime despite the author's admission that she is addicted to the genre. It is part exploration of how someone goes on after an event (or rupture, to use the author's term) severs the past from their future, and part exploration their own role in that event. The event in question is the Billy Gilley's murder of his father, mother and 8-year-old sister, an act committed in part, allegedly, to protect his 16-year-old sister, Jody.

Sounds interesting; so what is the problem, you may ask. The problem is the author.

As an author, Kathryn Harrison comes with a back story, one that she has previously shared with the public in fictional (Thicker Than Water) and memoir (The Kiss) form. I never can decide whether Harrison is exceptionally brave or exceptionally self-exploiting or just looking for salvation in all the wrong places. It certainly takes guts to tell the world you had a sexual relationship with your father when you were an adult. But the question that lingers is why tell the entire world? And why keep telling the world over and over no matter what the topic at hand?

"Studying the Gilleys required making inquiries into myself" - and how. Harrison can't go two pages without dragging the action back to herself.  Written in the "here's how I wrote this book" style that lets the reader in on the intricacies of note taking, personal filing systems and motel choices, I expected Harrison to be part of the narrative. I didn't expect the umpteenth recitation of her big, rupturing event.* Having dear, old, formerly absentee dad slip you the tongue during an airport goodbye is indeed a bad thing to have happen. But how about sticking with the main narrative?

The parts of the book that are genuinely focused on the Gilley family and Jody in particular aren't half bad. In the great nature vs. nurture debate Harrison is firmly Team Nurture so she's more interested in bad parenting than mental illness. She sees Jody almost as a character in a fairy tale rescued from her appalling circumstances not by her brother but by her intellect. The fact that Jody read books is treated like a magical gift - something along the lines of Rapunzel's long hair. I kept hoping Harrison would delve into this tendency to see Jody as a heroine instead of as an ordinary teenager, to explore the pressures this might have created for her. No dice.

At its best, Harrison strives to "construct a narrative" that will help her to understand Jody's story, and her own. At its worst, Harrison is prone to eye-roll worthy statements like "Eager to discover some of what informs the sixteen-year-old Jody's vision of the world, I buy myself a box of fifteen Harlequin romances" - the implication being that she certainly never read a single one herself. Or my personal favorite "Might not Jody, as young as six or seven ... have already begun ... to mourn ... all the Jodys she might have been were it not for the destructive environment into which she was born?" Might not Kathryn be full of it?

Occasionally insightful but more often banal and annoying, this book's every other paragraph belies Harrison's early assertion that she knows "my history and Jody's are not comparable." Kathryn Harrison is a good writer. If she could stop writing about herself she'd be worth reading.

*(At one point Harrison tells us that she's never confronted her own father and that stopped me dead in my tracks. Let me get this straight, she's told the entire freaking world about this to the tune of THREE BOOKS but she hasn't had a talk with the owner of the famous tongue?)

Fighting over last place

The Last Tsar

The life of a Romanov grand duke had its highs and lows. Among the highs were inconceivably large allowances, ornate living quarters, a selection of stylish uniforms, access to the entire company of the Bolshoi Ballet and trips to Monte Carlo on the family expense account. In the column marked “low” are arranged marriages, nosey relatives, pushy relatives, judgmental immediate family, and being murdered by the Bolsheviks in rustic settings. In the case of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, add in that the Bolsheviks hid his murder and claimed Michael escaped, and that history has all but forgotten him.

Donald Crawford is most upset about that last bit and The Last Tsar is his latest attempt to set the record straight. This is his second book about Michael, the first being Michael and Nastasha, co-authored with his wife Rosemary Crawford. If you’ve already read that book be warned that there is very little new material here and, oddly, some relevant material from that book is left out. For instance, Michael’s romance with cousin Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg isn’t mention here. What does get more attention is Michael’s war record. Overall, there’s no reason for the casual reader to bother with both books.

Michael’s story is interesting but Crawford doesn’t provide us with more than the bare bones of it. He references recent secondary sources, which is fine, but only to support his premise. Crawford has his opinions and his fondness for them makes this book tedious at times. Tsarina Alexandra is the villainess of the story – she’s described as “nagging,” “vindictive,” “jealous,” “hysterical” and “neurotic.” And that’s just in the first half of the book. It got on my nerves after awhile.

Crawford stubbornly presents Michael’s marriage to the twice-divorced commoner Natasha as a love story without ever giving the benefit of a hearing to Michael’s less than impressed family. It’s not a huge stretch to see that learning one’s son/brother/cousin has eloped with a woman who’s had three husbands in ten years wouldn’t inspire suggestions that “Our Love is Here to Stay” be played at the wedding reception. At a time when his nephew known to be in frail health, an uncle had recently been blown to smithereens, and it was too dangerous for his brother the Tsar to live in the capitol, I can’t blame the family for being unmoved by the power of love. Nor does Natasha come across as anything other than a beautiful woman who enjoys luxury and flattery.

Michael emerges as a someone content to “do the right thing” on a personal scale but until the war, not one to make sacrifices. Like his brother Nicholas, he is remarkable in his ordinariness. You get the impression that Michael would have made a swell house-guest but not much of a Supreme Autocrat.

In 2009 the Russian government “rehabilitated” Michael saying, in effect, that killing him was unwarranted. Whether Michael truly was the last Tsar (for a day) or not is probably best left to the experts. In my own un-expert opinion, having the Romanov dynasty begin and end with Michaels is reason enough to grant him the title it appears that he never wanted.