City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy*****

cityofdarknesscityoflightPiercy is a legend among feminists, and her writing was pivotal in my own development during the late 1970s and early 1980s as a newly-hatched adult. When this title, a novel based on the French Revolution, came out in 1996, I put it on my Christmas list and read it hungrily once I received it. When I noticed that it was released digitally this spring, I scored a digital copy from Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It’s a novel that is definitely worth reading twice.

Piercy is brilliant not only in bringing characters to life—and she did a prodigious amount of work before doing so, reading piles of biographies, memoirs, letters and other documents—but also in conveying the reader to the time and place In question. I think it’s because of this that her novel helped me to understand how such an amazing, incredible thing, the revolution, the democratic impulse that overthrew a monarchy, could end so badly. Dry history texts chronicle the “excesses” of the Jacobins. Say what? How meaningless is that? And it is by being able to see the roles played by key figures in the revolution, including the women that are usually left out, that I can see why the leadership degenerated as it did. An inexperienced working class with no background in how to organize a struggle ultimately paid the price, but in the end, the nation was still better off than it had been beforehand.

Using the grammar and conversational conventions of today for easier access to a popular audience, Piercy transports us back to a time when a life expectancy was less than fifty years for most people; open sewers flowed through the streets of Paris, causing horrible illnesses and a high infant mortality rate; and a starving seven year old child could be publicly hanged for stealing bread.

In fact, the bread riots led by the women of Paris were where it all began.

One thing readers should know if they read this novel digitally is that there is a glossary of sorts, a long list of characters and a few basic facts to identify them, but it’s at the back of the book, so you will want to go over it before you start and then refer back to it when you find yourself confused. The topic is huge, and you may need this cheat sheet, so it’s good to know it’s there. There are so many historical characters here, and if you aren’t fluent in this area, you may lose track of Robespierre, Danton, Madame Roland, and oh of course, Marat. And back then, Camille was a man’s name!

Piercy tells the story using the points of view of a wide range of figures important to this struggle. She gives a fair hearing to the perspectives of those that stood left, right, and center in this conflict, denying a sympathetic ear only to royalty—and even Marie Antoinette is treated with surprising sympathy. I came away feeling as if I knew so much more about the French Revolution and its terrible conclusion when I had read it, and rereading it was even more helpful, because it’s a lot to digest all at once, even if one is already aware of the broad contours of this pivotal time in French history.

When I love a book hard, I push it at everyone that comes within my reach, and I have pushed this particular novel at a lot of people over the years. Given how many times I loaned out my own (purchased) hard cover copy, it’s surprising that it isn’t falling apart, and maybe even more surprising that it’s always been returned to me.

Whether you prefer to read digitally or to purchase a paper copy, City of Darkness, City of Light is the most readable, accessible treatment of the French Revolution that I have seen. The fact that Piercy includes the key role played by women, both among the toiling masses and the elite salons of the intelligentsia makes it even better.

Recommended wholeheartedly to anyone that wants to understand the French Revolution!

Napoleon: On War, by Bruno Colson ****

napoleononwarWhat an ambitious project! This tome is not the kind of thing any writer puts together for money. It’s a labor of painstaking love and pride. Years were spent assembling Napoleon’s military ideas. Thank you once and thank you twice, to Oxford University Press and Net Galley for allowing me to preview the DRC. And of course, thank you to Mr. Colson for his effort. You can buy it this month.

The difficulty in publishing Napoleon’s ideas is that they were scattered. The man was not only a military genius but also an academic one, and every time he turned around he was having someone take something down. Assembling them into one place was another matter, particularly since he was captured, exiled, captured again, exiled again. In a fit of despondency he tossed the memoir he had begun into the flames at one point. So gathering everything together and then sorting the philosophical, which still has relevancy, from the technological part of Napoleon’s military work that is now outdated by more sophisticated weaponry, is another massive task. It’s no small wonder it took someone a long time to do the job and do it right. The reader will perhaps be surprised to learn how many quotations have been ascribed to Napoleon that he actually never said.

That said, I also have to acknowledge that the niche audience here is academic. This is nobody’s breezy popular biography. And whereas I could happily never see some media jerk throw together something and pretend it’s accurate based upon his own personal fame, at the same time, I just need to warn the reader that this is going to be tough going. I’m persistent; I love history. I was willing to wade through Neil Sheehan’s Pentagon Papers, and I was willing to fight my way through this book too. But for most readers, either a purpose, such as perhaps upper level or graduate level university course work or a thesis, or a really intense interest in French history and military strategy will be required to get through it.

Colson’s scholarship and research are beyond reproach. Read the introduction and you’ll get the point. He has done his homework many times over. In fact, unless one is a fluent reader of French, it would be impossible to duplicate his effort even if one were inclined to try. But why do that, when you can access this excellently researched and painstakingly organized volume?

Highly recommended for the serious scholar.

Napoleon: A Life, by Robert Andrews *****

napoleonalifeRobert Andrews has created an historical masterpiece in this massive tome, a biography of Napoleon. Thank you and thank you again to Net Galley and Viking Adult Publishers for the ARC.

Andrews is well known among historians; his scholarship and experience firmly establish him as an expert in the field of European history, especially military history and biography. The recent availability of a vast treasure-trove of primary documents made this biography possible, together with a tremendous amount of work and travel. He visited libraries all over the world and battle sites where Napoleon had been before him, before all of us. (And he set off the alarm in Napoleon’s throne three times!)

How long did this take, I wonder? By the time it was published, Andrews must have felt an overwhelming sense both of loss and of satisfaction.

As for your humble reviewer, I came to read about Napoleon, whose military career, rule, and downfall I had studied only at the shallowest level during my undergraduate years a whole long time ago, through the back door. My field is the American Civil War, but I was intrigued by the number of Civil War heroes (and others) who had studied Napoleon’s methods in detail, and referred to them when creating their own battle plans. What was it about Napoleon?

Generally, my advice to those contemplating reading a lengthy biography is to get the basics down first, but I didn’t follow my own advice here. I had the opportunity to get the ARC at the end of November, and it was now or never. I decided to plunge in, poorly prepared though I might be. When I was finished, I found I had bookmarked or made notes in over 700 places in this 926 page work. So whereas I won’t use all of my references, I can truthfully say that there is no filler, no fat. If you haven’t the patience for almost a thousand pages of Napoleon, then don’t go there, but for heaven’s sake don’t pretend that more is included here than is necessary for a thorough, scholarly, yet interesting treatment.

Having said that much, I also have to confess that I struggled somewhat with the ARC. My knowledge of European geography is pretty basic. I know where most of the countries are, what their climates are like, and for the most part, where the borders are located. When we morph into the Napoleonic era, I really, really needed maps, and that’s the price one sometimes pays for an ARC: your “map” is [map insert] noted. There will be a map; I don’t get to see it. So I gamely brought myself to my desktop for the first four Coalition Wars, and was lucky enough to find an interactive map that gave me part of what I needed to know. In some places, Andrews explained what took place so well that I could see most of the battle inside my head. But as of the fifth coalition forward, I quit trying to find my own maps when I couldn’t follow the action, and just read what was in the book.

All told, Andrews corrected some misperceptions I had developed regarding Napoleon. My own view had been that there was a heroic French Revolution, followed by what are usually termed “excesses” by the Jacobins who began the Revolution. (Today these en masse trips to the guillotine would be called atrocities.) But could the whole thing be salvaged? It seemed such a terrible waste to have a popular revolution, throw out not only a monarchy but one unusually lacking in decency toward the peasants and urban poor of France, and then have it all come tumbling down. And it also seems like a waste to have an autocrat take over. This was my perspective before reading Andrews’s biography.

Though his approach is both scholarly and balanced, Andrews offers a positive portrait of Napoleon, whom he treats with a fond, almost affectionate narrative. He points out that Napoleon kept the Bourbons off the throne for over twenty years, and it’s true that they returned in 1815 after Napoleon’s first abdication. Things got really ugly then. And he also points out that Napoleon’s career was unusually complicated. The point is well taken.

For example, who invades neighboring nations, overthrows their leaders, presumes to rewrite their constitution without consulting anyone that lives there…yet bestows upon them more civil rights than they have ever had before? And who else would insist in his terms for peace not only remuneration so that he can pay his troops and the annual benefits of military widows, but also demands that great works of art, privately owned, be turned over to him…whereupon he places them in a gallery where all visitors can enjoy them?

Mind you, the man is no Robin Hood. Far from it! He makes it clear from the beginning that he has no use for the ‘hoi polloi’, and whenever he ceases privately held property, he also sees to it that the previous owner is compensated.

The word “hubris” is often applied to Napoleon, and if not him, then who? Andrews argues that he might have been successful…if only. And there’s the rub, right? Because initially, he and his troops travel fast and hard. In the beginning, he asks nothing of them that he would not do himself. His opponents, on the other hand, are spoiled and effete. They travel with vast amounts of personal baggage and servants. They can’t move until they personally have this, that, the other. And in the end, that is the guy that Napoleon becomes.

The text is made more lively throughout with quotations of Napoleon himself, a prolific writer and a brilliant, articulate speaker.

The chapters are organized according to place, generally speaking, and this is very useful when the reader needs to go back and fact-check.

Andrews argues that Napoleon’s autocracy-as-meritocracy might have been successful if he had applied the standard to all of the dynasties he created after toppling their rulers that he applied to France. Nepotism created endless problems, and though Napoleon somehow thought that he personally might make up for the failings of his relatives, there is only so much one man can do. The many, many worthless siblings and other relatives he installed as instant royalty drained his resources and made problems that didn’t have to happen. His first wife, Josephine, was such an obsessive spender that one hates to think of the number of children under age six who might have lived had the wealth been more widely distributed.

Napoleon’s most loyal base of support was within the military, but he fought so aggressively that too many soldiers died, and the backlash was bound to come sooner or later. Yet the military base he so depended upon wanted him back again after just ten months of Bourbon reign.

Could Napoleon have been successful if he had left the Iberian peninsula alone? If he had avoided attacking Russia? Napoleon himself, upon looking back while in exile during his last years, recognizes that trying to best Britain, with its unstoppable navy, was folly; yet he certainly kept them busy for a good long while.

At one point, he reflects that if he had known he would end up defeated, he could have made different choices. He would like to be allowed to emigrate to the United States; who knows, he could have founded a state there! And here, my jaw drops as I imagine that instead of selling the Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the USA) to the USA via President Thomas Jefferson, he had decided to settle it. But being Napoleon, would it have even stopped there, I wonder? He hated Britain and had nothing against US rulers; maybe he would have been able to kick the British out of Canada instead of fruitlessly attempting to rout them from their homeland.

Suddenly I can see how Andrews has become spellbound by what might have been. He has spent a lot more time with this material than I have, and it’s starting to affect me, too!

I know that some of those who read my reviews are teachers. I don’t see this as high school material; a small portion of it could be selected for honors level seniors or community college students perhaps, but then you have huge books to buy in order to use just a portion. I don’t see even the most gifted teenager sticking it out from start to finish. Though the narrative is engaging, the definitive biography is epic .It requires patience and dedication on the part of its readers. Developmentally, most young folks in their late teens and early twenties just won’t be there yet.

But if you are in doubt, buy one copy and read it yourself, then pass it around a little bit and see how it goes. Likewise, if you are homeschooling a truly extraordinary teenager that you think would gobble this up, buy it, read it (because you can’t home school anyone using a text you have not personally read), and then if you still think it may work and your student is game, give it a try.

All told, the price you will pay for this remarkable single volume biography is nothing compared to its worth in your own library, even if only used as a reference source.