Names Through the Ages by Teresa Norman

Names through the Ages, Teresa Norman, Berkley, 1999

3.5 Stars

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Names Through Some Nations’ Ages

The description for Names Through the Ages claims that “In the first book of its kind, Teresa Norman traces the history of Europe, from the ancient Roman era to the present, and shows how names originated and changed throughout the ages,” which is sort of true, but not completely so. What is presented here is valuable information on the etymology of certain names, both first and last, that range over several thousand years.

As unprecedented as this book claims to be, its scope is limited to a small portion of Europe, specifically France and the British Isles, as well as America. No other European nations are covered. France is the lone non-Anglophonic one mentioned. This Anglocentric perspective is expected, as in the English-speaking world it’s natural to focus on English naming conventions and France’s history has been tied to England’s for over a millennium. Still, it’s a shame, considering many of the names listed are derived from Aramaic, Germanic, Scandinavian, Hellenic, and Roman roots, so it would have been fascinating to learn of other nations’ naming customs.

Norman provides in-depth historical details that led to the evolution of names over time. The book is broken down by area and eras, with sections on England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, and later, the USA. The chapters begin with lists of the rulers of each country, then go on to impart information on political, social, and religious norms of individual time periods, before examining how those issues contributed to the formation of names. Roots, prefixes, and suffixes are provided. The lists of names are sorted by gender and their definitions are shown, but not, lamentably pronunciations.

American Names, Too?

The American portion of the book is the shortest, but gives the greatest variety of names, as one might expect considering the multicultural and multilingual roots of her people. The origins of surnames are indicated and vary from English to Spanish to Native American to Japanese. However, the names are not broken down by region, nor indicate how they are distributed among ethnic/racial lines, which would have made it more comprehensive. Nevertheless, it’s possible there are people named Zebulon Chin, Leif Aguilera, Latasha Bear Killer, and Rashad Metzger because that’s just the way America rolls.

A Useful Guide

“Names Through the Ages” is a helpful source for creators of fiction who want authentic sounding names in their works. Looking for a male Scots name circa 1400? How about Ruaraidh Colquhoun? (I assume it’s pronounced Rory Culkin, but don’t hold me to that.) A female character during the French Revolution could be Alexandrine Bouteiller. How about an English Regency-era rake? Sir Lyell Sutton sounds appropriately pompous.

But even if you’re not writing, this is a useful reference. My daughter would often steal this book from my shelf to search for names for her Medieval Sims characters or when she played RPGs. And of course, potential parents will find this handy when trying to find that perfect name for their babies.

What’s here in this book is super utile, however, I was hoping for a wider expanse of names. I’d give this 5 stars if it were called British and French Names Through the Ages as it is very enlightening when it comes to those. I have deducted 1 star-and-a-half as it covers a mere fraction of Europe, but don’t let my grievances deter you from reading this book; it is, as I said, an illuminating source of knowledge.

American Desperado by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright

American Desperado, Frank Jon Roberts and Evan Wright, Crown, 2011

4.5 Stars

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A Very Evil Man

American Desperado is the story of Jon Roberts’ life as told to author Evan Wright. Just who was Jon Roberts?

He was an orphan, a kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, small-time hood, a Vietnam Veteran, a thief, a Mafia associate, a prominent NYC discotheque owner, a drug dealer, a racehorse aficionado and, most importantly, a prosperous businessman who was one of the most successful American importers of all time.

Of cocaine.

And by his own admission, a very evil man.

Reading this memoir of Roberts’ life, one might be fooled into thinking he’s not all that evil. He’s charming, funny, and a capable raconteur. His stories will either have you laughing, reeling in shock, or totally engrossed. His life story is entertaining as hell, having lived more in his 63 years on Earth than a dozen random people combined.

But don’t fall prey to his two-faced nature. Roberts was extravagantly generous to his many, many girlfriends, a cool-headed businessman (when he needed to be), and an absolute lover of animals, exceedingly kind to all creatures, whether feathered or four-legged (except alligators. Eff them.). However, all that pales in comparison to what Jon was truly about. He was a murderer, a rapist, a thief, a kidnapper, a blackmailer, a money launderer, an informant, and a criminal drug smuggler who, from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s brought in several billion dollars worth of cocaine into the US. He was one of several noted American “Cocaine Cowboys,” if not the most prominent.

Jon Roberts, Cocaine Cowboy

Jon’s father was a Sicilian-born Mafia soldier, who made Jon witness a grisly murder at an early age. After his father was deported, Jon turned to a life of crime, being pushed around from schools to juvenile detentions to reform schools. His first sexual experience was raping a young girl whose father considered Jon like a son. Stupidly naive of the man, of course, as Jon never hid his violent, antisocial ways. Though Jon did have an astonishing ability to charm people despite his wicked nature.

He became more entrenched in a criminal lifestyle, interrupted only by a violent four-year stint in Vietnam, which only made Jon more bloodthirsty. After the war he joined the mafia, first running small-time scores for them, then climbing up the ladder bringing in big bucks. Eventually, he became a major player in the night club scene, the owner of various big-named clubs like Salvation, where famous celebrities would turn up. Jon would often lace their drinks with LSD for laughs. Once, Jon spiked Ed Sullivan’s drink, driving the variety-show host to a mini-nervous breakdown after fondling a prostitute’s naked breasts while tripping out. Jon’s old-school mustachioed Mafia bosses were not pleased.

Jon eventually got involved in several murders which brought on too much heat for his mob contacts and was banished from New York. From there he moved to Florida, where in just a short while he became a major mover in the cocaine business, working this time for the Colombian cartels, and raking in millions.

All this before the age of thirty.

A Twisted Empire

I won’t summarize the rest of his life, as there are numerous articles, books, tv movies and documentaries about “The Cocaine Cowboys”’ exploits. If you’re unfamiliar with names such as Pablo Escobar, Griselda Blanco, La Familia Ochoa, the Medellin Cartel, Max Mermelstein, Barry Seale, Mickey Munday, or most shocking of all, the Bush-Clinton MENA connection, I suggest a brief internet search to inform yourself before reading this book. Although it’s doubtful readers who are interested in the biography of Jon Roberts’ life are unaware of most of the characters involved in the Golden Age of Cocaine.

This is a fascinating story, but one so disgusting you may feel the need to take several showers afterward. Whether exaggerated or not, if only one-tenth of what Jon Roberts revealed in American Desperado is true, the War on Drugs is just a big dog-and-pony show that is supported by criminals and politicians alike, not to be redundant.

It’s a horrifying and infuriating notion.

Sister Queens by Julia Fox

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, Julia Fox, Ballantine, 2011

3 Stars

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Book – Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile

While Julia Fox’s attention to little details is meticulous, her book Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile is mistitled. It’s a lopsided historical account of Katherine of Aragon, with scant attention placed on her older sister, Juana of Castile.

It read to me like Fox intended to write a biography on Katherine and maybe came up a few pages short, so she crammed in some facts about Juana. They were sisters, both queens, treated cruelly by their husbands and then cast aside in vicious games of politics.

I figure 2/3 of the book pertains to Katherine, 1/6 to notes and pictures and the other 1/6 to Juana’s life. It’s understandable to an extent, as Fox is an accredited expert on Tudor history, and there is so much known about Katherine and her marriage to Henry VII of England, a marriage that ended up fragmenting the Catholic Church and changing the face of Europe forever.

Juana the Who?

Sections pertaining to Juana’s childhood and her marriage to Philp Hapsburg are frustratingly truncated. It’s understandable as Juana spent most of her life—well over 40 years—locked away at Tordesillas, kept prisoner by her beloved Father, then later her son. Not much happens when a person is shut off from the rest of the world.

Fox maintains the now commonly held position that Juana was never insane, and backs this up with accounts from respectable people who came in contact with the supposed Mad Queen.

While I agree that Juana would not be considered legally insane by modern standards, she did exhibit such emotional mood swings which could be diagnosed as bipolar or manic depression. Juana’s documented strange, erratic behavior is downplayed by Fox. Certainly Juana’s treatment was unjust and callous, but there is evidence that, for a while, at least after Philip’s death and then giving birth to her sixth child, Juana was not mentally capable or willing to fulfill her functions as Sovereign Queen. Worse, Fox speculates so often about what Juana felt or did and how we will never know certain truths as hard proof is lacking, that she rarely comes to any definitive conclusion about Juana. We’ll never know anything for sure, Fox frequently states, so then why write about it?

Katherine the Great

In contrast, the parts on Katherine were painstakingly detailed. From Katherine’s grand entrance into London, her marriage to Arthur, then to his younger brother, Henry, each of her pregnancies and miscarriages, the death of her son, how she prudently ruled England while Henry was away at war with France, and then how valiantly she fought to save her marriage from divorce, these facts are all described in a well-annotated, scholarly manner, so replete with minute details of clothing, food and castles that G.R.R. Martin and Bertrice Small would be proud.

Katherine’s letters and actions are documented facts. Her character is fully analyzed, so Katherine becomes a fleshed-out human being before our eyes. There may be a few mysteries about her motives, but there is never a doubt about who she is.

A Lopsided Account

Were this a book just about Katherine, I would have appreciated it much more, rating this at least a 4. I’d like to consider myself an amateur historian when it comes to the Trastamaras & Hapsburg Spaniards and I found the sections on Juana disappointingly sparse in comparison to Katherine’s. The only information new to me about Juana was the number of visits her grandchildren made to her while she was imprisoned (18 in 20 years).

It’s unfortunate that this book is so uneven with much more written about Katherine than Juana. The parallel themes Fox attempts to draw about the sister queens’ fates are not thoroughly convincing. If she had framed her book on a point by point basis, rather than writing this chronologically, perhaps she would have made a more definitive case. As it was, I’m not sure what her ultimate thesis was besides pointing out the obvious tragedies.

4 stars for the Katharine sections + 1.5 stars for Juana’s = 2.75, rounded up to 3 stars overall.