Friday, July 31, 2015

Update

I have been experimenting with different layouts, you might have noticed if you read regularly, in an effort to find one that is really a reflection of me and my personality. Nothing seems to fit quite right yet, and purple is my favorite color, so consider it the default setting for now. I will continue to try to figure out what I want the blog to look like, let me know what you think - especially if something is hard to read because of the font, background, or color combos.

Happy Reading,
Sarah

Saturday, July 25, 2015

William Wallace: Man and Myth

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Rating: 2.5 Stars

Review:

Anyone who has ever read a review on this blog of a book relating to Scotland knows how I feel about the country. I took my mother there for her birthday in 2009 and fell in love myself. Now I am counting down the years until we can go back and take the munchkin with us - you know, the little lady of mine who takes her middle name from my favorite city on the planet.

That refresher aside, it should then not be a surprise that in addition to defending Mary, Queen of Scots regularly, I am deeply fascinated by the story of William Wallace. I have never seen Braveheart and do not plan to. Movies based on history I am interested in fall into the same category as books of the same - I'd rather not. Additionally, the mistakes are so much worse in movies, since they are working with a much more limited time/space.

So, when I found this one at the library, I was interested. I've been to Stirling Castle, seen the landscape where Wallace's great victory took place, and wanted to read this one in order to see what might actually be fact and what can be safely reconciled into the myth category.

The problem is, this book does not do that. It seems that the author purposely chose instead to simply look at all the ways Wallace's myth has evolved and been use to support varying Scottish politics through the centuries. In the final chapter, the author even begins by writing, "By now the reader should be no closer to finding the real Wallace. If you have followed this text on its journey here to chapter eight - its close - then you might just be hoping the author will go on and tell you who this Wallace really was" (page 134). he then goes on to say we already know who Wallace is - a leader who won a great victory over England at Stirling, only to be betrayed and condemned to a traitor's death upon his capture. So here then the author is basically saying, "Too bad, I am not going to tell you." Truthfully, it is not because he does not want to (I don't think, anyway), but because he can't. In his choppy, meandering, clunky wade through history, he has chosen that path to show you that there is very little factual information that can be corroborated by any sources. And that is fine. I did not like, however, like the fact that he did take such a path. The book is basically just 152 pages of Scottish nationalism, politics, huff-puffing about the various monuments and Braveheart, and then globalization. It is certainly not what I would have expected from a book with this title, and thus a disappointment. A better title would have been something like, 'William Wallace: The Myth and How it is Used in Promoting Scottish Nationalism'. Then, this could have been an essay instead of a book, and would not have dragged on nearly as long. It is not a bad book per se, but not what I was expecting or looking for.

But, as always, when I review a book relating to Scotland, you can be sure I will include photos! All photos were taken by and belong to me, at Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle, 2009.

At Stirling, look out to the Wallace Monument on the far hill. The story I was told on this visit is that stone arch bridge to the left is roughly in the same area as the bridge used where the English crossed in order to engage Wallace's men in battle. Wallace and his men were to have camped on the hill where the monument now stands. In actuality I don't know if the story is true, as other accounts I have read say the hill is possible, but would be difficult for Wallace's men to have descended quickly due to it being steep and slippery in places. (Stirling Castle, Nov. 2009)

A better shot of the monument. Unfortunately, as Stirling was our last stop of the day before heading back to Edinburgh, we were unable to visit. (Nov. 2009)

Statue of Robert the Bruce at Stirling; Nov, 2009

Entrance to Edinburgh Castle. Wallace on the right, Bruce on the left (Nov, 2009)

Summer Reading Update!

Have not been able to post much because I am just hitting a wall with some of these books lately! I don't know if I am just getting pickier, or I picked that many duds, but UGH! Plus, summer is winding down and I am finding that I like snuggling with Eleanor during nap time more than I like reading a book that makes me fall asleep.

There is one week left in the OPL Summer Reading and I am at over 220 hours of reading! I also am at 48 books, when my goal was 40, so, win.

I also found out a week and a half ago that the Ralston library also does a program, but it ends this weekend. Theirs is run differently, as it is not online so you have to physically going into the library to submit your book reviews to them. I asked if I was able to include the books I had read recently for the OPL program and they said yes! I submitted a bunch of reviews for a prize pack that includes a Monsters, Inc puzzle and a family pass to the Durham, so fingers crossed that baby E and I win that one!

As for my year long Goodreads goal, I am currently at 171 books, well on my way toward 200!

I have decided this year to not up goals if I met them before the deadline was up. I had to keep doing that last year and thought this year I would just set what I thought was doable and if I go beyond that goal, great, it will give me a good idea for next year!

Happy Reading!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Haunted Plantations of the South

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Rating: 2.5 Stars

Review:

I receive this as an ARC free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I love Ghost Hunters (but not Ghost Adventures, those guys are ridiculous and never try to debunk anything and seem to always think the ghost are cussing at them. So stupid). But, anyway, I requested this one because I am interested in ghost stories and architecture as well - especially the various styles described in the book; plantation homes are beautiful.

Unfortunately, you don't get to see what any of the homes or areas look like, since there are no pictures. To be fair though, I was reading an ARC so it is possible that pictures were added to the finished product.

I wanted to like this one, but it got to be very repetitive - there are only so many ways you can describe hauntings that result from murders, suicides, diseases, war, and old age. I also found some of the back stories to be sometimes contradictory, or the stories that lead to the hauntings as such also. I mean, I understand that we don't know all the history of these places, but when you say on one page that no activity involving the ghost of Jefferson Davis has ever been reported at a particular plantation house, but then a few paragraphs later relate a story of a couple's wedding photo capturing a man in the window who looks like Jefferson Davis...things like this need to be caught in the editing process. There are also a few other quibbles I had that were similar in nature, so no need to recount them here.

This is an interesting one to skim, but due to so many similar stories, it is difficult to read straight through. I do appreciate that the author gave indications as to whether the properties are accessible to the public or not. One who is more familiar with these properties might also be interested, as he does go into as much detail as possible from what records still exist.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

18770182

Rating: 3 Stars

Review:

First I have to say that the cover is perfect, and is what caught my attention right away. I am a firm believer in the importance of cover art and this was just too beautiful and sad to pass up. I am especially fond of black and white photos, particularly when modern photos are taken this way (which does kind of sound strange to say since Pompeii is anything but modern in itself). Plus, I am a sucker for anything related to Vesuvius and Pompeii, so there's that too.

Unfortunately, I should have read the inside flap to get a bit more info about what the book was actually about. I was looking more for a text related to "life" in Pompeii since the eruption, primarily a focus on the excavation work that has been done in the last few decades. Instead, this was more a social history of how actors, writers, artists, and various others have experienced the ruins of this once-thriving city. It doesn't make it a bad book by any means, it just was not what I thought it would be or what I was looking for.

I particularly enjoyed the last chapter - or perhaps enjoyed is the wrong word, since it related much to how Pompeii is neglected and slowly being eroded and destroyed by all manners of natural means and otherwise. But I enjoyed it because the focus was Pompeii itself, a city I very much would like to see one day. I only hope it still exists when I get the chance.

The idea of Vesuvius erupting again is not something to be dismissed lightly and I found the information on the evacuation process interesting. As one can imagine, this will not be an easy task to evacuate the 3.5 million people living in the area. Still, these people know the risks, and many have lived on the same land as their ancestors, some of the families going back several generations. It would not be easy to just leave all that behind.

In the end, recommended for those who are interested more in a cultural history of the site since 79 AD. For those looking more for a book with a archaeological focus, you could pass on this one.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond

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Rating: 5 Stars

Review:

I really enjoyed this book, despite me not being as interested in the technical side of things as in the human aspect. I was most interested in reading about the Apollo project, mostly 11 and 13 of course. Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies and I wanted to know the real story beyond the Hollywood dramatization. I did find Mercury and Gemini interesting, the more I read about them, but was most eager of course for Apollo. Kranz tells his story well, and I also was interested in his own life and upbringing, which he recounts for us as well. I was concerned there would be too much focus on the technical aspects of the space program, but was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Kranz tells his stories with the right mix of human and technical elements. Highly recommended, I can only hope that Kranz's suggestions will not fall on deaf ears forever and that our once-great space program can be revived and grow to what it was.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Finding Arthur: The True Origins of the Once and Future King

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Rating: 1.5 Stars (On Goodreads I gave it a straight 1)

Review:

So much wrong, I don't even know where to begin. I don't mean with the THEORY itself (because regardless what this guy would have you believe, it is still just a theory), but I mean the presentation, tone, so much. It was a gigantic struggle just to finish this by the last two chapters. I hardly got through the epilogue. I was so excited to find another Arthur book, I can't get enough. Unfortunately by age 53, I was already beginning to regret my decision to read this one, as the tone was incredibly self-righteous and pompous. Certainly not the way to grab readers and earn their respect. Or better yet, get them to buy into your theory.

Now, I love Scotland.It is my favorite country in the world. Edinburgh is the city I belong to (despite me being entirely a US citizen of German and Swedish heritage) and want so badly to make my home there some day. So, I would not be at all opposed to the finding of any evidence indicating Arthur was actually a Scottish. I too hold a special place in my heart for England, so if he was King of the Britons, I am down with that. For me, it is more so a matter of, "did he really live?" For the author it is a matter of "where did he really live?" I get the Scottish pride thing, I have it and I am not remotely Scottish, but due to years of bullying and repression by England, the author is bound and determined to prove Arthur is Scottish.

Unfortunately, all he basically has is what amounts to word play. "This place sounds like this place, this name sounds like this name. We don't know this guy's real name but we know where he might be from, which sounds like this, but it certainly can't be that place because that place is south." He hardly actually refers to England by name at all, ever. It is always 'south'. He doesn't actually have any evidence (unless you count the book "Finding Merlin" which, incidentally, he wrote himself. No joke, he actually uses the phrase, "according to Finding Merlin". And he references it all the time. I think you might need to read that one in order to understand his weird double naming thing he does here with Merlin. But, whatever). There are two problems with this little word play game he has going on. First of all, it is not solid evidence. It is him taking names that sound like other names and saying they sound similar. That's great that they do - to him. To others, perhaps they are not close enough. He uses the very thing he calls others who have come before him for doing. That does not make a lot of sense to me. Same goes for his use of conjecture, which he readily admits multiply times under the guise of being humble, yet continues to state without a doubt that Arthur was a Scottish warrior.

The author has a major axe to grind with Christianity. He states very early in the book that Arthur was not and could not have been a Christian king, and constantly refers to Druids as those of The Old Way. He even goes on to say later (page 252) that it is, "...just daft - holy product placement" in regards to references to Arthur carrying a cross at the battle of Badon. Perhaps it never occurred to him in all his infinite wisdom that this statement could mean Arthur had a cross painted on or affixed to his shield. Certainly other authors have come to such a conclusion - authors who are willing to look at multiply theories, places, and names, and not just fixate on one and say it is right and that is that. I also enjoyed (sarcasm alert!) the part where he said those who have looked and continue to look for the Holy Grail are 'deluded' (page 74). His opinions on Christianity shine through VERY early on.

In addition to the word play he calls evidence for locating the real Arthur, he does a lot of this in regards to his own family name. He references this a lot, about how peoples' last names are only interesting to them, his is so rare, blah blah. You are right buddy, I do not care one iota about your super rare last name or the fact that it is so rare, you are related to everyone who has it. Perhaps this was included to show how great you are at deducing which words in ancient times are equal to our words of today. Either way it was pointless and filler and I have expected him to make the claim that he had discovered he was a descendant of Arthur. Maybe he did, I don't actually know because I skipped over the personal stuff.

I guess you have to give the guy a little credit (thought I can't give him much, because his arrogance and pompousness are evident, page after page) for being bold enough to make claims like, "To exist in the south in Britain it was necessary for Arthur to become a legendary figure, because Arthur did not exist in the history of the south" (page 225).

So, in the end I have to say pass on this one. I had high hopes but they were dashed quickly. Big disappointment here, so if you are looking for books about Arthur, look elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen

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Rating: 1 Star

Review:

I honestly do not even know if I have the energy to write a review of this ridiculous 'scholarly' work. There are so many problems, such unprofessionalism, and even inaccurate historical facts, I don't know where to begin.

So, here we go:

Anyone who has read my reviews in the past know how I feel about Anne Boleyn. I do not see her as a victim or a heroine. I see her as an intelligent woman in love with a married man, who was able to advance her position socially into the very highest ranks in becoming Henry's queen. I see a woman who gambled on the fact that she would be able to provide Henry what Katherine could not, a son, but in the end she too would be cast aside when she could not follow through on her lofty promises. She played the game well for three years, but in the end lost, just as so many others did during Henry's tyrannical reign. I do not believe any of the nonsense about witchcraft, extra fingers, or the clearly trumped-up charges of adultery which can easier be dismissed given the timing and facts we know of Anne's whereabouts and pregnancies.

That being said, me making my feelings about Anne in historical context perfectly clear, I should also point out that I am well-versed in Tudor history and have read numerous books about the queens of England. I have read books dedicated to Anne alone, and can recognize a good biography when I see one, even when I do not hold the subject in high regard - Eric Ives being numero uno. It was a great read, despite my dislike of Anne. Since I am able to recognize a good Anne-related text, let me say this is certainly NOT one of them and to not waste the time or money. There are so many issues, as I briefly touched on above, it is almost overwhelming. I was updating every five minutes as I read about something new that was absurd or ridiculous or factually incorrect.

Now, I was reluctant to read this when I was still only in the introduction. You see, I greatly admire Eleanor of Aquitaine. I was put off right away when the author stated that Anne's execution was shocking even to those who believed her guilty of the accused crimes of adultery and treason, and states that Eleanor of Aquitaine was simply banished for the same crimes. I about said 'bye Felicia' right here. Eleanor was not banished. She was held captive by her husband (Henry II) due to her helping incite her sons into rebellion - more than once. So yes, treason. But no on the banishment and adultery (insofar as we know in regards to this marriage. As far as her marriage to Louis, that is another story). Basically, there is no comparison between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anne Boleyn, and for the author to even use them in the same sentence was nearly enough for me to call it quits there. But I persevered (get it?), and deeply regret it. On we go to the more solid Anne-related reasons this book is terrible...

First, one of the factual inaccuracies that has been bothering me occurs early on. Here the author says that when Henry and Anne met Francis in Calais, Henry could not force Francis' wife Claude to come meet Anne (page 71). That is true, but not for the reasons the author states. See, Claude died in 1524. This visit was in 1532. By then Francis has remarried, and been so to Eleanor of Castile/Austria (depending who you ask on the 'of' part) since 1530. As someone who claims herself (on page 213) to be an 'Anne scholar', surely she should not have made such an error - especially because it was considered kind of a big deal that Eleanor refused to meet Anne at all. How did no one catch this? Not just the author, but anyone in editing or someone who proofread? I mean, seriously.

Secondly, the book just reeks left and right of unprofessionalism. While I am no fan of Starkey myself, largely due to his horribly misogynistic treatment of the queens and his insulting those of us in the Midwest and the implication The Tudors was dumbed down so we could understand it, this became a free-for-all on him and really any author who had ever said anything negative about Anne or used Chapuys as a reference - something the author then does herself! How can she say at one point that he is not unbiased (DUH! He hated Anne!) and we can't trust him, but then she goes on to take his written word on various other matters. She then goes on to insult not only Starkey, but those who have read him (and I am assuming those who take everything he writes as factual). The author writes, "...a not-very-historically-informed reader - that would be most of Starkey's audience, as he is not interested in courting the academics but rather the general audience" (page 17). Sorry lady, but I am a very informed reader who reads about these topics for pleasure, not academically. By page 231, the author has devoted a considerable sum of pages targeting Phillippa Gregory in particular for 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. Now, I have not read this, nor do I plan to, mostly because I do not read historical fiction, but come on. Attacking left and right those who present Anne in a less than flattering light? It's called historical fiction for a reason - though I agree that those who write in this genre should do a better job making sure their audience knows what is fact and what is fiction.

Fun Fact #1: Know what else is totally unprofessional? Pretending to be a scholar while calling Henry a 'pussy-whipped hubby.' Yet she did, right there on page 13. Keep it classy, Bordo.

The author's treatment of Katherine and Mary is highly suspect for someone who claims she is not writing a just biography of Anne, but a 'cultural history.' In a cultural history (especially the parts about, you know, how Anne has been portrayed), I would expect facts only, not the constant injecting of opinion on the marriage and Katherine that we are constantly subjected to. The author has the nerve to try to paint Katherine as the problem, not Henry, when she herself in other sections is proclaiming that Henry is the problem in regards only to relating to Anne. Excuse me, but I am pretty sure Henry is the root cause all the way around - and Anne was certainly not innocent. But, back to Katherine and Mary. We have them labeled 'self-righteous' on page 13. Then by page 17, Katherine has already been called 'proud' and 'stubborn' many times - right, because how silly of the old hag to want to preserve her marriage and protect Mary. (I hope it is clear here that I am being facetious here when referring to Katherine in this way; of all the Queens, I admire her the most, despite what this author might have you believe of her). As if more examples are needed (but they are, to show how absurd this portrayal of Katherine is), on page 73 the author writes, "Katherine remained stubbornly glued to her 'rights'" and "Mary behaved either like an obsessively dutiful daughter or a spoiled brat (depending on your point of view) in refusing to acknowledge Anne as queen." So, let me get this straight, Mary was a spoiled brat for supporting her mother? For wanting the inheritance that was rightfully hers? It is obvious which camp the author falls into. The author is seriously so enthralled by Anne, that she seems to believe Anne was genuine in offering Mary friendship and life at court in return for acknowledging her as queen. While I don't necessarily subscribe to the view that she was plotting to kill Mary (or Katherine, for that matter), but I can believe she wanted Mary close in order to keep an eye on her. Here is the last example I will use, from page 174, "Katherine, after all, had fought him tooth and nail for six years, stubbornly refusing all attempts to provide her with a dignified exit, seemingly unconcerned that she was tearing England apart with her resistance." Look lady, I have put up with a lot of nonsense in this book, but that takes the cake. It was HENRY who tore England apart, not Katherine or even Anne herself. It seemed to be that when the author was discussing Anne, Henry was to blame for everything, but when discussing Anne and Henry together, everything was Katherine's fault. That does not fly and should not, regardless of your opinion on any of the players involved. It's like the author (remember, a self-proclaimed Anne scholar) suddenly knows nothing about Henry whenever Katherine is discussed; like she does not recognize suddenly that he gradually became a tyrant (though I am of the belief it was always there, kind of lying in wait, even in his early years) who did as he pleased. No one should be surprised that he ordered Anne's death to make himself look all the more the wronged husband who had loved his wife and she had been unfaithful - of course this would have been a major crime, the succession of the throne was at stake.

Fun Fact #2: The author is also a doctor, apparently (I know nothing of her beyond this book, so perhaps she actually is. I don't know). By this point in the text she has diagnosed Henry as either having a borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. In a previous chapter she asserted that if he lived today he would have been diagnosed with ADD. Interesting that in this same chapter she calls into question the theory of Henry possibly having McLeod Syndrome, stating that, "bioarchaeology, like evolutionary psychology, is heavy on theory and light on proof." Pot, meet kettle.

In the end, there is nothing groundbreaking about this book. I was truly hoping for a cultural history and a study of Anne through the ages, with her various portrayals (I did enjoy reading the excerpts of how Victorian-age children learned of Anne) but too often it became a diatribe against another author. In truth, it is already pretty widely accepted that Anne was innocent of the charges against her and Henry was looking for a quick way to get rid of the wife he had once loved, but had since grown tired of. Even those of us who side firmly with Katherine can recognize the superstitions of the age, all that about witchcraft and deformed fetuses, moles and extra fingers. All of it was piled on to further demonize Anne through the centuries. No on is disputing that - or should be, at this point. Anne's strengths were also her flaws - ambitious, scheming, even ruthless at times, I believe.

While I could go on, this review has taken more than enough of my time. The book eventually just becomes an homage to Natalie Dormer, who gave a great performance as Anne in The Tudors. I was glad to be done, as I am glad to now be done with this review as well.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Shakespeare's Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337-1485

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Rating: 4 Stars

Review:

If you are half as interested in Shakespeare and the Plantagenet dynasty as I am, you will enjoy this one. It is both a history text and an analysis of the Bard's greatest historical plays. The author does a fine job comparing the two, providing first the historical events, then how Shakespeare presented those events. The two did not always match up, but the author also provides sufficient explanations for why Shakespeare wrote this scene this way, or changed the chronology, etc. And it must be remembered too, as the author points out, "...but then (Shakespeare) was not a historian; he was a dramatist. The play was the thing; and if he could amuse, inspire and perhaps very modestly educate his audiences, that was enough."

My only real issue with the book has to do with punctuation: semi-colons are EVERYWHERE.

Otherwise, enjoy!

Additionally:

I also found this quote to be well-said and a concise way to wrap up the historical aspects of the text, and forgot to include it in my review:

"(Bosworth) marked the end not only of the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses, but also of the Middle Ages. The England of Henry Tudor and his successors would be a very different - and happier - place." Though, I might add, this would perhaps be truefor some; though not for any of his son's wives (except Anne of Cleves), or the many victims of the religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic

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Rating: 5 Stars

Review:

Aside from Wallace Hartley, I'd never known the names of any other Titanic musicians prior to this book. I feel as though I've done a disservice to these men by referring to them as such, but it is how history collectively remembers them.

I found this book to be well-researched and well-written. The author put together the lives of these brave men as best as he possibly could, without resorting to much conjecture. The fact is, there is much we will never know - from their private lives to what song they actually played in those final moments before succumbing to their fate. Still, the author manages to tell a riveting story and bring these men to life once again.

Additionally, I was intrigued by the last chapter about Hartley's violin and after a trusty Google search, found that the violin in question has been authenticated. How unbelievable that his violin survived, and survives to this day.

Highly recommended for anyone as obsessed with Titanic as I am.

Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World

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Rating: 2.5 Stars

Review:

I wavered between two and three stars; I expected this to be a bit more lively, given the subject matter. Maybe I'm not as interested in Greek history as I thought. Maybe the author knows SO MUCH about his subject, he accidentally makes it boring. I don't know what the root cause is, likely a combination of all three. Regardless, it took quite a bit for me to get through this short volume.

Titanic: A Journey Through Time

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Rating: 3 Stars

Review:

The layout of this book is atrocious. It severely hampered my reading, as a paragraph would be cut off for a bunch of captions - often no where near the photo they were describing. The photographs themselves were wonderfully poignant and sad, and I found myself drawn more to those than anything else. Focus on those and skip the choppy narrative and you'll be fine.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII

Author: Karen Lindsey

Rating: 2 Stars

Review:

Do not be fooled. This is not a 'feminist reinterpretation' of anything. In fact, it is an insult to the feminist movement to call this a feminist reinterpretation. In truth it is a thinly veiled attempt to once again make Anne Boleyn a victim, and be wholly sympathetic to the emerging Protestant cause in the last years of Henry's reign (that being said, I myself am of a Protestant persuasion, so that in itself is not the problem. The issue is the author bias).

I have got to start listening to my gut instinct when I read these days. I knew the moment I read the sentence toward the end of one of the early chapters calling Catherine and Ann (author's misspelling, not mine - seriously, why why why??!!) "equally remarkable", that it was all going to be downhill from there. I would never consider Anne Boleyn remarkable in the way I consider Catherine. Catherine is in a class by herself, continuing to carry herself with dignity no matter how cruel Henry became. Anne was manipulative, self-serving, and schemed her way to the throne. However, the author would have you believe that Anne is not only a victim in how history perceives her, but a victim of sexual harassment by Henry as her pursued her relentlessly and would accept no answer except 'yes'.

Um, really?

Apparently, what Anne was REALLY saying, was that she was politely trying to let the king down gently and doing her best to spare his feelings without coming right out and saying she did not want to marry him. The author interprets Anne's actions as saying, "What is clear is that she did NOT want Henry Tudor."

Right. That is TOTALLY believable.

Except, not at all.

The author also insists Anne never loved Henry, which I find a little ridiculous. While I have time and again given my opinion of Anne Boleyn and her role in the break-up of Henry and Catherine, I do believe Anne loved him. I believe she also wanted to be queen - and the Howard stock she came from would prove time and again to be very self-serving and ambitious - but to say she never loved him seems far-fetched. While he was not exactly in his prime anymore, nor was Henry the ailing, disgruntled, paranoid old man he would become by the time he married Catherine Howard or Kathryn Parr. He was still a 'catch' and had certainly been caught by Anne as she had him (though I don't believe there was witchcraft and any of that rubbish that has been used to further blacken Anne's name over the centuries. I think it was pure, old-fashioned lust, coupled with the fact that Catherine was past child-bearing years.)

The author then addresses poor Jane, who was lucky enough to die, I suppose, before she could displease the king and be divorced or beheaded. Given what little we know of her - and what we do implies she was of much different character than the outspoken and bold Anne - it is safe to say that had she incurred Henry's displeasure, she was more likely to have been of the 'divorced' variety than the 'beheaded'. That was only reserved the Boleyn/Howard family.

Then we come to Catherine Howard, who made some very stupid decisions. Of course, this is all excused away again under the guise of 'feminist reinterpretation' as her simply being a young woman who knew what she wanted and would do as she pleased. Well gosh that's great, now. The only problem is, Catherine does not live in the 21st century. She lived in the 16th century, where it was not so accepted (and by 'not so' I mean 'not at all') and in addition, to cheat on her husband. While Henry was aging and ailing, he was still her husband. Kings were expected to have mistresses, queens were NOT expected to have lovers on the side - the very succession of the throne was at stake. As much as we may not like the double standard today, it was a fact of life then. Much like her cousin, Katherine gambled, and lost. And much like her cousin, she lost her head for it too. It doesn't make it right, it just makes it acceptable in the context of the times in which they lived and died - and really why attempting to reinterpret this time period with a feminist view does not work or make sense at all. 

So, after all that, the book doesn't work because the premise isn't doable. The idea of feminism was not even a thing then, so to take the actions of men and women living 500 years ago and trying to put them into this mold of what feminism looks like today is not possible. Not only that, but we are not privy to most of their thoughts, even when we know what their actions might have been. Aside from that, you will find no new information here, so if you are looking for a book about Henry's wives, look elsewhere.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now - As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It

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Rating: 3 Stars

Review:

I am a bit obsessed with city biographies. I love the history, how this or that place could just be this village, or this town in a swamp, or whatever and then BOOM, it's this huge, thriving metropolis. I especially love the idea of London, because so many things that I am interested in happened there, albeit 500-1000 years ago.

This is an interesting idea and I appreciate the work that must've gone into this book. The hours and hours of talking to people, I myself would enjoy doing that as well. This is not strictly a history of physical London though, so if that is what you are looking for, look elsewhere. This is a social and cultural history told through the eyes of dozens of current and former Londoners.

The author speaks to a wide variety of people, so you can appreciate the different points of view that comes with varying ages, cultures, careers, etc. There are those who love the city as it is now or was, and those who hate it and want to get out. But none of the perspectives are wrong, because each comes with their story, so you're reading along thinking, "Wow, this guy's life is awesome, I want to move to London" and then the next story is just depressing and you're like, "Oh dear Lord, no way." And of course, the only way you will ever know is if you go for yourself and give it a try.

Interesting read, I recommend it if you are interested in this type of city biography.

Additionally: 

Our time in London was so short, due to our delayed flight from Edinburgh. As a result, we didn't get to see any city sights before taking in a show, the BEST show you could ever hope to see. And let me tell you, those cab drivers REALLY are as awesome as they sound in the book. Because our flight had been delayed, the visitor center where we were supposed to pick up our tickets was already closed, so I didn't even have the info with the name of the theatre. I was nearly in tears again (the first time being after Mom and I got separated in the train station!) But I told the driver what show we were going to a BOOM, we were off! We got a super quick tour of the city, he pointed out Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and then, suddenly, we were there:



Some day though Mom and I will go back, and take Eleanor too, and see London as it is meant to be seen - in the daylight!

Castles

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Rating: 3 Stars

Review:

Not great, not terrible. Kind of dry at times. Great photos and illustrations, but seriously, no Edinburgh?? No Blarney?? Two amazing castles that deserved attention. No Windsor? No Stirling? Come on!

Additionally:

I decided to give this a little more attention - and also post pictures of my own favorite castles, because I love castles. I absolutely LOVE castles and have seen some awesome ones in Ireland, England, and Scotland. There are many more I want to see, but I have a good start.

This books really is informative, but it just read like a textbook sometimes and was very hard to continue - but it is by no means a long book. There are newer books available I'm sure - I hope - as we discover more and more during excavations. 

I was lucky enough to see several castles in my European travels in 2009 and 2010. When Mom and I traveled to the UK, we saw Edinburgh, Stirling, and Windsor (England was a short, short trip and much of Windsor was actually closed to tourists while the Queen was knighting people that day). Then in 2010 we traveled to Ireland, where we saw Dublin, Bunratty, Malahide, and Blarney. All amazing in their own right, though I am partial to ruins like Blarney, not furnished castles like Malahide. All photograpghs were taken by me (or my mom, or in the case where we are pictured together, a helpful but unnamed fellow tourist) in 2009 and 2010 and all belong to me.

Here are a few gems that should have been included in this book:

Our first view off the bus on the Royal Mile, after having landed, dropped our stuff at our B&B (The Ben Doran, AWESOME!), our first morning in Edinburgh (2009)

Edinburgh (2009)

Edinburgh (2009)

Urquhart Castle (2009)

Urquhart Castle (2009)

Entering the grounds of Stirling - MY FAVORITE! (2009)

Stirling (2009)

Stirling (2009)

Holyrood Palace (Okay, so not really a castle, but still awesome) (2009)

Windsor (2009)

Windsor (2009)

Blarney (2010)

Blarney (2010)

Blarney lots of small passageways to look around in! (2010)

Bunratty (2010)

Bunratty (2010)

Dublin (2010)

Dublin - this is about all that remains of the castle above-ground unfortunately. We were able to see the parts that are still underground though too (2010)

Dublin - The original castle stairs are now below street level (2010)

Dublin - remains of a city wall, below street level (2010)

Malahide (2010)

Malahide - Mom and I (2010) - the nice man who took our photo was quite the amateur photog. He kept directing us and his wife kept apologizing (she's the one standing to the left). It was quite funny, and we got this great picture.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Picts and the Scots

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Rating: 4 Stars

Review:

I found this slim volume to be very informative, given that it was first published in 1993 and there have been new editions since then - something I did not know when I first found it at the library. Prior to, I had no real knowledge of the Picts or Scots, aside from bits and pieces. I did not realize their cultures lasted so long, into the 11th century.

I find the so-called Dark Ages so fascinating; how can any period truly be dark, when it produced the likes of the Book of Kells (which I was lucky enough to have seen when I was in Dublin in 2010! So beautiful. And as an aside, the Trinity College Library, wow. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.)

I would certainly be interested to see what information might be included in any updated versions of this book and plan to read others on these subjects as well. The only thing I really wanted from this book was more color photographs. It is hard to see some of the mounds and such in a black and white photo, especially if you are unfamiliar with terminology and not quite sure what you are looking at. Otherwise, no major complaints. Recommended read!

*****While you are not actually allowed to take pictures of the Book of Kells, here are a few photos from Trinity College in Dublin where the book is on display. All photos were taken by me in July of 2010 in Dublin, Ireland.

First finding our way around...

We've reached the library!

I had to capture the replicated artwork of the book wherever I could, since I knew pictures of the actual book were not permitted.

Entering the exhibit. So worth the time. It is a must see!

The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings 1066-2011

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Rating: 4 Stars

Review:

While I have said in the past I am not terribly interested in the monarchy much beyond James I (and even that is shaky at best), I LOVE weddings. Maybe I should have been a wedding planner?

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this book the whole way through, though of course the section devoted to my most favorite time period was considerably shorter, as they all lived and wedded 500 years ago or more.

Each author contributes a chapter, following events in chronological order - I even made it through those Hanover weddings. I must say though, I am becoming more interested in Queen Victoria (but don't worry Queen Eleanor, you'll always be my favorite!) This book is interesting on many levels, not just the marriages themselves, but how fashion has changed from the time William and Matilda wed, until now.

The last chapter details weddings from 1961-2011, ending with the engagement of William and Kate. There is of course ample space devoted to William's parents and it is almost impossible to look at the photos of their wedding day and not feel so terribly for Diana. I never knew until reading this book that the night before their wedding, Charles told Diana he did not love her. I can't even imagine how difficult it is for William and Harry to not only know these things about their parents' marriage themselves, but then to know that the whole world knows these private matters as well. I do not envy them in that department at all (I do, however, envy the fact that they live in England, have access to all these amazing historical places).

This is an easy read, I finished in just a couple hours. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of the monarchy and especially in the weddings of course.

Great Britain's Royal Tombs: A Guide to the Lives & Burial Places of British Monarchs

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Rating: 3 Stars

Review:

I must admit I have a fascination with tombs, particularly the effigies and ornate designs dating back from the time of the Tudors and earlier. I was intrigues by this book and was certainly not disappointed by the photographs of these splendid monuments to the kings and queens I have read so much about. While revolutions can be a good thing, I curse those who destroyed the tombs and scattered the remains of so many! (I mean, I get it, freedom, but was disturbing the dead necessary? I even get dismantling some of the most elaborate ones as symbol of power of the monarchy, they could be rebuilt I guess ((still not cool though, jerks)), but scattering the bones of Eleanor of Aquitaine?! Seriously, it pisses me off, for lack of wanting to be more polite about it. Although, I did find the fact interesting when the author mentioned it is a widely held belief that the location of Eleanor's, Richard's, and Henry's remains are actually known. He cited fear in a drop in tourism as the reason for excavations not being carried out. Yet, if the excavations were done, couldn't the remains be placed properly back at Fontevraud? This is Eleanor we are talking about! (Warning, the website is in French and the translation is awful. Just look at the pretty pictures). You'd think tourism would INCREASE if the remains were restored to their proper burial place (regardless, Eleanor and I will be visiting some day when she is old enough to understand and appreciate the history behind her name. Hopefully by that time France will have righted this grievous wrong).

While the tombs and effigies displayed in the photographs are themselves beautiful, the text leaves something to be desired. I understand this is more about the pictures than the text, but for someone who is new to this history, they would not be able to recognize incorrect information, spelling (Marshall instead of Marshal, as in William Marshal, the greatest knight in the history of England. Seriously, come on), dates (citing something happening in a later year for the queen's 'demise' two years prior - um, what), and so on. They would, however, likely also be distracted by the assortment of things the editor missed - a comma in the middle of a year instead of after, awkward wording in many places (stating how it took three days for Queen Elizabeth to order the flag at Windsor be 'raised to half staff'. Either the author meant 'lowered', or flags in England fly at the bottom of the flagpole. I looked back my photos from when Mom and I visited Windsor and there is no flag at all on the flagpole that day.

(Taken by me at Windsor Castle; November, 2009)

(Taken by me at Windsor Castle; November, 2009)

I am not sure why, as large portions of the castle were closed to tourist, since Queen Elizabeth was busy knighting people that day. I'd think the flag would be flying with her there, but am not sure why it was not. Now, any Google of Windsor will show a flag flying normally as one would expect, so...?)

Anyway. There are still interesting tidbits to be learned, and of course the main focus of the book is the tombs themselves, though the author does give an introduction to each House, beginning with the House of Normandy, right up to the House of Windsor. I was curious that there was no photo of Edward VI's tomb, perhaps he was not afford an elaborate one due to his age and shortened rule? I just thought that as the long-sought male heir of Henry VIII, there would be something. I also learned that, while it has long been assumed that the bones discovered in the 1600s buried under a staircase in the Tower were those of Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, coffins of two unidentified children were discovered in a previously unknown crypt that was connected to the vault where Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were interred. Much like the French in regards to Eleanor, Henry, and Richard, nothing had been done, there was no inspection, and the tomb was simply resealed. If those coffins, in fact, hold the bodies of the princes, then who the heck were the other two children buried under the stairs?

Overall, the photographs were the best part, and the focus. It is worth it to brave the distractions of the spelling/editing/factual errors presented in the text to see some of the most magnificent burial places of these great kings and queens. And for history nerds like myself, I can not wait to some day see them in person.

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

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Rating: 3 Stars

Review:

This was a quick read, mainly because it feels like an extended gossip magazine, giving the reader an inside look of the ups and downs of the First Families mostly from the Kennedys onward, though there is some mention of earlier Families. I didn't mind the book for the most part, I found it interesting and have a great respect for the difficult jobs the staff have to perform. My biggest complaint is to be found in my updates - the author repeatedly refers to how the staff  'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil', implying they will not talk about what goes on in the White House...in a book about what goes on in the White House. It makes little sense to repeatedly say how discreet the staff is, when within the same chapter you have the Clinton/stitches story, saying many staff members thought Hillary had hit Bill with a book, though he said he ran into the bathroom door. There is a lot of talk of the Clintons, naturally, but lots of it negative. The Bush family appears however to be able to have done no wrong. Nancy Reagan would have driven me crazy and I'd likely have quite too, as one staff member did. And the way she spoke to Ronald? She came across essentially as treating him like a child and telling him to be quiet.

All in all, an interesting, quick read. However, the author would better serve to not be so contradictory. Clearly the staff is not THAT discreet if they are sharing stories with you about the monstrous fights between Bill and Hillary.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Titanic: A Night Remembered

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Rating: 2 Stars

Review:

I don't even know where to begin with this book and I am not sure how it has received such high ratings. There are so many things wrong with it, I don't even, just, wow. But here goes.

Firstly, throughout the entire book I wanted to say, "Look here lady, EVERYONE not living under a rock or in a barn knows about 'the James Cameron film, released in 1997'. She seriously said that every. single. time. Little repetitive garbage like that drive me crazy. Every chapter, she made sure to remind us that James Cameron directed a little-known film about the disaster. SERIOUSLY.  

I had just finished reading 'Unsinkable' the day before I began this one. That book was published in 1998, 6 years before this one. That is why it is curious to me that whole phrases seemed to be lifted straight out of 'Unsinkable'. Not direct quotes from survivors, but the phrasing from Butler/'Unsinkable'. It occurred mostly throughout the retelling of the sinking itself, prior to the author delving into specific mini-bios of the so-called 'heroes and villains' of the tragedy. It amazes me how this could be possible, but it happened enough times that I had to check the cover to make sure I hadn't grabbed 'Unsinkable' by mistake.

Throughout, the author seems to repeatedly overlook Chief Office Wilde and his apparent lack of ANY action that night. Survivors (both crew and passengers) recounted their memories of who was where, doing what, and when. Time and again, there are mentions of Captain Smith, Officer Murdoch, Officer Lightoller, Officer Lowe, and so on. But there is almost nothing as related to Chief Officer Wilde, SECOND IN COMMAND - except for those who recall seeing someone shoot themselves on the bridge not long before the ship went under. Some say that was actually Captain Smith, some even claimed it was Murdoch. I can not understand how the author can devote whole chapters to the mistakes of Smith and Murdoch, and not try to put together Wilde's course of action from the time the ship struck the iceberg to the time she went under. Here we have the officer who should have been the example for all the officers below him, loading boats, guiding passengers, etc., and he actually appears to be the least useful officer in the midst of the chaos. The author lambasts so many for their inaction and failures that night, but her silence on Wilde seems to absolve him of any responsibility in her eyes. At least, that is how it looks to me.

I appreciated the focus on some of the individual figures who were key players that night - incidentally, none of them survived. Phillips, Hartley, Andrews, Smith, and Murdoch. What I did not like, however, was the author asserting the fact time and again that what Phillips and Hartley did, the things that made them heroes in the eyes of the world, were irrelevant. She maintains that Phillips continued to send distress calls even though no ships besides the Carpathia were responding. She also completely ignores the position of the Californian and the fact that the ship was roughly 10 miles away; it makes sense to me that he would try to continue to reach ships that might be closer, ships that might be entering the wireless range. Additionally she claims that Phillips "prevented ice warnings from getting to the bridge". I am pretty sure that is a fairly serious accusation. In the same paragraph she says that Marconi operators are trained to deliver messages relating to the functioning of the ship - LIKE ICE WARNINGS - before dealing with the trite messages that passengers wanted to send to family and friends, bragging about their travel. So, which is it? Did he do his job or not? It would seem that he delivered the messages to the people who he was supposed to, can he be blamed if the officers didn't deliver them to the bridge? or was it the job of Phillips and Bride to give them directly to Captain Smith? That is not discussed. So, this whole aspect of the story is not told in full.

She treats Hartley accordingly, even going so far as to say that the band leader and fellow musicians contributed to more deaths but lulling people into a false sense of security. Seriously? Perhaps if more had been done to assist those in 3rd class trying to navigate the decks of the ship, more people would have been saved, as the lifeboats could have been filled. The musicians seem to me to be the last people to blame.

I don't see how Ismay can't shoulder a good portion of the blame. Complacency on the part of Captain Smith due to his many years at sea can account for a portion, but without a doubt Ismay had a heavy hand in it. But there were so many missteps that night on the part of many individuals who had the power of life and death at their fingertips - particularly those loading the boats - and some which occurred long before she had ever set sail. The most appalling fact will always remain that there were not enough lifeboats/seats for every passenger and crew member. How this was acceptable, how these regulations were done by some ridiculous calculation and not that actual number of people on board is baffling.

In addition to the above issues, I found the author to be contradictory. One example again involves Phillips and Bride. In an early chapter dedicated to Phillips, the author makes a statement regarding Bride and Phillips and that it was the 'last time Bride saw him alive'. Yet in Appendix I regarding which passengers escaped in which boats (sorry I'm not sorry, but this is so tacky), she clearly lists both Bride and Phillips being on Collapsible B. In parentheses she indicates Phillips possibly died on board. First of all, Collapsible B was never launched in the way all the other boats had been, as it fell from the roof of the officers' quarters upside down and unable to be righted. The men survived by sanding on top of it through the night. Some accounts I have read say that Phillips was alive but passed out and fell into the water at some point. Other accounts say that no one actually saw Phillips on Collapsible B. The author does not address these inconsistencies and makes herself look contradictory, first by the statement of Bride not seeing Phillips again, but then by placing them on the same lifeboats.

Another bothersome fact throughout was incorrect facts. Near the end the author refers to the Titanic being rammed into an iceberg by her British owners. Yet she clearly states elsewhere prior to this that JP Morgan's IMM owned White Star, and had since 1905. So, I guess that actually makes the owner AN AMERICAN. Little stuff like this just kept popping up and it was terribly distracting.

One thing I did appreciate is that the author took a look at three cities who all had connections to Titanic - Belfast, where she was built; Southampton, where so many of her crew came from; and Queenstown/Cobh (Cove), where she last left port. It is so heartbreaking to read of so many families in Southampton who lost fathers, sons, brothers, uncles. Unfortunately I have to be cautious in accepting the things the author says in these chapters, given the numerous other issues described above. I can't be sure what is factually correct or what she has left out in only telling the partial story. I especially liked that Cobh was addressed, as I was able to visit this beautiful city a few years ago with my mom (different trip than the Scotland one!) and see some of the sites. We were not able to visit Belfast due to time constraints in our schedule, but I am determined some day to see the dry docks and the place where she came into being. It is on my bucket list!

The following photographs were all taken by me in July, 2010 in the city of Cobh.

The former White Star Line offices, now converted into a restaurant and bar.

A wide shot of the harbor where Titanic last dropped anchor. The former White Star Line offices pictured above are just to the left of the light pole. The water was too shallow for Titanic so she was anchored off-shore. The dock where passengers waited to be ferried out to the ship are still standing.

The dock.

A close-up of the dock.

We visited the museum in Cobh, which details the history of Cove/Queenstown/Cobh, the "City With Three Names". Not only were there exhibits devoted to Titanic, but to the the numerous citizens of Ireland who emigrated to other countries.

Finally, I feel like I need to address the author in regards to the "1997 James Cameron film". She presents it often as this British vs American battle, and I realize that it kind of what it became in 1912 in the aftermath of the disaster due to the inquiries. However, that is not how I viewed the movie. She specifically uses First Officer Murdoch as an example, saying he was not depicted in a positive manner. Both in real life (by survivor accounts) and in the movie, it became sheer chaos at the end when people realized all the boats were nearly gone. In the movie, it is clear (at least to me) that even though Cal gives Murdoch the money, he does not put much stock in it. And in real life it is unclear how many actually knew there were not enough boats, it is something I don't know any of the surviving officers ever commented on - particularly Lightoller, the highest ranking officer to survive. Then, when Murdoch shoots Tommy, it is clear it was an impulsive reactions after the crowd had become unruly. Otherwise, he was presented as doing his job fitfully - doing all he could as soon as the call came to the bridge that the iceberg had been spotted, to loading passengers. I never interpreted this and then Murdoch killing himself as 'British cowardice'. Having read so many books on the subject, I interpreted this scene in the movie as using the accounts of an office committing suicide. As I mentioned before, different accounts said it was Smith, Wilde, or Murdoch. Seeing as Wilde was pretty much absent from the movie, and Captain Smith was shown in the wheel room, that left Murdoch. Anyone who relies on non-fiction for their facts about events in history is likely to come to the same conclusion.

Anyway, over all this was not a good book and I was disappointed. There are many other things I could touch on; the Duff Gordons' treatment, more on Ismay and Smith, what the band was playing when she sank. But I think this is enough. I really want this one to be good and was so looking forward to it, but when I read the SECOND LINE of the introduction (hardcover edition), 

"Although I agree with those critics who faulted the film for its clumsy dialogue and hackneyed, melodramatic plotline, I also readily grasped the key to its overwhelming popularity."

It was a bad omen, here she is knocking the very movie that the 15 year old girl in me will love forever. I should have followed my gut and quit then. But I stuck with it because, despite not being 15 anymore, I still want to read anything and everything I can about this tragic event. In the end, it is not worth the time. Pass. There are better books about the Titanic.