Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible

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Rating: 2.5 Stars

Review:

Man, this guy knows how to make the Founding Fathers boring.

I wanted to like this book, because it should have been right up my alley. I find it interesting seeing how these men - not politicians by trade, but regular, everyday men who were forced into these roles with their successful revolution - are regarded today and how our Constitution is time and again re-purposed for whoever needs to invoke them to make a point. Unfortunately, it was not written in an interesting or an engaging way and I had to force myself to even finish it. Pass.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The First Queen of England: The Myth of "Bloody Mary"

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Rating: 5 Stars

Review:

This is one of the best biographies I have read this year. It is all the better for me personally in that it is a much more balanced look at the first queen of England, Mary I. I have always found is heartbreaking in that she is so overshadowed by Elizabeth and her reputation so blackened by Foxe. It is s though even in death, she has continued to suffer at the hands of others, 500 years on. Mary went from both parents doting on her (as much as parents - especially royal parents - did in the 1500s), to being taken first away from her mother, the incomparable Katherine of Aragon, to slowly but surely having nearly every person who ever mattered to her taken away one after another. It can't be a surprise to anyone that she turned out the way she did/ Time and again she was subjected to terrible psychological torture as her father first separated Mary from her beloved mother, and then continued to force her hand in accepting the divorce of her parents. And you only have to look at the cruel execution of the elderly Countess of Salisbury and what can only be described as her state-sanctioned murder that was botched horribly, to see how this mental torture continued for Mary. However, I do also feel like the saying that references 'how Mary turned out' is not entirely accurate, as I feel like after reading this, a lot of peoples' perceptions of Mary will be quite different. There is no doubt that the religious aspect, the executions that gave her the nickname 'Bloody Mary' later on, had a major impact on her reign. But so often people are then willing to overlook, or do not know about at all, the similar experiences under the reign of Elizabeth.

I feel like this book was very all-encompassing and did not only look at Mary herself, but how the world around her impacted her life. We are privy to her life from birth, through her briefly happy childhood, to the horror of the divorce and being forced to attend Elizabeth, reconciling (so to speak) with her father, being subjected again religious battering from her brother, her triumphant ride into London to take the throne from her cousin Jane Grey, the subsequent terrible marriage to Philip, phantom pregnancies, and finally her death. (As a side note, this book presents quite possibly the saddest line I have ever read in regards to Jane's execution: "Then the axe fell swiftly and cleanly and this hideously manipulated, unloved slip of a girl was gone." UGH! It still gets to me.

Mary's marriage and phantom pregnancies are especially heartbreaking to me. As a young woman she had assumed she would end of not marrying. Then she becomes queen and it never occurs to any of her counselors that she can or should remain unwed. It seems fairly straightforward to me why she clung to Philip and the marriage so tightly, and why she wanted so desperately to be pregnant - from the time her mother passed away (and even before then, really, once they were split up), Mary had no blood family to call her own. Being married and having a child could have been a way for Mary to fill that void that had existed so long within her. I don't know how to describe it but heartbreaking. You can't help but have wanted her to have a child, to overcome everything terrible in her life that had occurred in her earlier years. I can't even imagine how devastated she was.

All in all, this is a superbly written account of a queen who deserves a second look and deserves much more respect than she has gotten in the centuries since her death. Porter gives a much more balanced and unbiased account of Mary's life. It is highly recommended for those interested in the Tudor era. As an additional note, I recently read somewhere that because of the way their tombs are designed, with Elizabeth's on top of Mary's, that Mary's is in danger of being crushed under Elizabeth's. This would be tragic, and yet one more time that Elizabeth gets the one-up on Mary. I hope this can be rectified before it is too late.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

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Rating: None given, did not finish book.

Review:

When I first started reading the book, the author's anecdotes annoyed me. I wanted more of a straight history. Again, this is what I get for forgetting to read the sub-title. As I went on, I enjoyed his stories more. However, I still can not finish this book. I feel I can not rate it, however, due to it being my own personal issue with not finishing it and nothing the author did wrong. He is passionate about his stories and those of the Hapsburgs, but much like I find with elsewhere in Europe, my interest wains as we reach beyond the 1500s. So, have it at if this is your style, as he mixes his own stories and history fairly evenly. Simply was not for me.


The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot

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Rating: 3 Stars

Review:

I must first say that I do not buy into anything in any way related to Gnosticism. I don't believe that there was some secret wisdom imparted onto Judas from Jesus before His death.

What I do find fascinating, however, is the idea of a Gospel being written in relation to Judas, a man considered to be one of the most evil men in history. The history of the physical manuscript itself is also beyond intriguing, and reading about its journey into the light made for an interesting adventure. It gave me a lot of insight into the world of antiquities trade - something I knew nothing about. I guess I had never before given much thought to what happens to the items removed from the lands we consider part of the ancient world. I must also say as an aside that I believe these items should be returned to the lands they came from - the Rosetta Stone and various obelisks, especially those which were basically stolen (not those given as gifts).

Anyone who has read my reviews of Ehrman's work (he wrote the introduction for this book) knows how I feel about the guy - he annoys me. Not because I disagree with him on many points (if that were the reason I disliked him, I wouldn't read his books or books like this to begin with), but because of the way he comes across when making the points that he does and the way in which he dumbs the material down so completely, it is condescending and annoying. I skipped the intro of the book altogether to avoid as much Ehrman as possible, but to my displeasure I found he was quoted much throughout the book. Definitely could have done without so much of his nonsense.

I have thought a long time about what Judas means to history and to Christianity; that is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to write this review. I feel conflicted in writing these words even, but I suppose it could not be completely outside the realm of possibility that Jesus gave Judas the job of turning Him over to the authorities. Jesus was sent by His Father to die for our sins. It was pre-ordained that this would happen. So, if you think about it in that light, Jesus had to be turned in and arrested by someone. Couldn't it be possible that Judas was that person, on purpose? There is so much I am still learning, as I rediscover my faith again, that perhaps I am totally off base in thinking this way. But stripping away all the Gnostic nonsense also in the text, just looking at this single act in this way, does it make sense? I have a feeling I will be needing to talk to my pastor about this very soon.

All in all, it is a text about the journey of this so-called 'lost gospel'. It is an interesting one, a sad one, an educational one. It was decent enough to move quickly, and not terribly academic. One thing that I would have liked was an actual translation of the text, as I have seen in other books about this subject.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Roman Britain: Outpost of the Empire

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Rating: 4 Stars

Review:

Though the text is a bit dated (1979), it still contains a wealth of information, photos and maps. I have yet to find a book put out by Thames and Hudson that I have not enjoyed. Certainly I would recommend it still today, despite being 30+ years old. I find this time period so fascinating, more so in relation to it being Roman Britain specifically - not just regarding the Roman aspect. 

My only wish is that at least some of the photographs might have been in color - though it is possible that updated texts would have color photography. And, of course, I have my own photos of the Roman Baths in Bath, which Mom and I visited in 2009 as part of our UK trip. It was so amazing to see these structures that have existed for almost 2,000 years. That these ruins have survived as much as they have continues to amaze me and the preservation work that has gone into this place is wonderful. I can't wait to go back to the UK and see other remains from this ancient age (Hadrian's Wall, I'm lookin' at you!) The following photos were taken either by or my mom in Bath in November of 2009 and belong to us:

The Roman Baths; in the foreground to left is where the spring flows into the bath. It takes thousands of years (I think 10,000, but I am not positive) for the water cycle to complete. (Bath, 2009)

Mom and I (Bath, 2009)

The Roman Baths (Bath, 2009)

Remains of the hypocaust used for heating (Bath, 2009)

The bath lit up as dusk falls (Bath, 2009)

Joan of Arc: A History

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Rating: 2.5 Stars

Review:

It took all I had to finish this one. I should have paid more attention to the subtitle of 'A History'. While I am terribly interesting in reading all I can about Joan of Arc, I have found I do not care one iota about the history of France - even in regards to the Hundred Years' War, which features one of the countries I love learning about so much, England. I was looking for another biography about Joan, and sadly, only a portion of this book is actually about Joan.

That's not to say this is a bad book. It is just not what I was looking for. Now, as I don't find the history of France my particular cup of tea, it was difficult for me to get through the sections pertaining to the war before Joan made her appearance. It is obvious though that Castor has done her research. This is not a hastily put together piece of work. Unfortunately, it is a very dry one. I simply could not get my interested in the 'Before' section, no matter how I tried, and I ended up skimming much of that section, so ready was I to read about Joan herself. The second section was most interesting to me, as it was directly about Joan and her mission, while section three dealt with 'After', meaning after her execution.

I understand what the author was doing, in writing a history and not a straight biography. To understand Joan is to understand the time in which she lived. The war itself was just not interesting to me, as I don't generally care to read military history - medieval or otherwise. And as I mentioned, the writing is quite dry and it was hard to remain interested in the book despite my great interest in Joan. As long as you go in knowing that Joan will not make an appearance for several chapters, and look at this as a history of this select time period, perhaps you will enjoy it more than I did. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Year Unplugged: A Family's Life Without Technology

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Rating: 1 Star

Review:

I received this as an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This is one of the worst books I have ever read. The premise is so intriguing, and the idea of 'unplugging' is so wonderful in this day where we seem to have to rely on technology for so many things. But the writing was terrible, some of the stories included were completely pointless and irrelevant (FILLER!!), and this was way too long and repetitive.

Here was my initial review on Goodreads:

This book is awful. Review to come shortly. I can't decide where to start: with the author and her five year old's conversation about hair on Mommy's vagina, or the author's descriptive imagery of her taking a pregnancy test. Seriously. This book is awful.

Now that I have had a day away, the book is still awful. Here we go...

First, the book was super dated with all the Hannah Montana references ALL THE TIME. The family did this little experiment in 2009, but the book did not come out until 2015. Perhaps they could not find a publisher willing to put out this crap until they begged and pleaded? I have no idea. And in addition, why was their five year old allowed to watch so much TV to begin with? It just didn't make sense to me that such a young child would be so obsessed with a show that is not even their age demographic - even pre-Crazy Miley.

From the get-go it was hard to tell if this chick even likes being a parent - something she herself has to explicitly state that she does, seeing as how even she had to recognize how much she bitched and moaned about the difficulties of keeping a child entertained all the time when all she wants is her morning tea. It was seriously ridiculously. 

As I said, the premise itself was interesting, but the author was not the person to write it. I have not read a more obnoxious, pretentious book in a really long time. I stopped counting how many times she mentioned that her family lived in Silicon Valley. We get it, you live in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley. She strikes me as the type of woman you would see on one of the Real Housewives shows, it was that absurd. Really driving home the point, she included a pointless (to the story of being 'unplugged') anecdote about how a homeless man rejected her offer of clothing in the summer. She gets all pouty because he didn't want to carry the additional clothing, and what was the point? To make herself look all heroic and caring, only to be spurned by a this ungrateful homeless man who should have been glad to take whatever scraps she tossed him? Blech. Don't forget the part where she finally says she has had so much wine and chocolate, she has to hire a personal trainer to lose the weight. And then the family gets a Prius. BlahBlahBlah. Oh, plus the Human Society (OF SILICON VALLEY) built such a nice facility it was really like a hotel for dogs. Can't forget to mention that.

Speaking of Silicon Valley, counting the references to Apple would be another fun game you could play which would be more entertaining than reading this book. I am fairly certain that Apple sponsored this book, due to the insane amount of times she mentioned her iPod, iTunes, Mac, iPad...again absurd and so pretentious. Maybe I should say 'pretentious' in this review as many times as she mentioned they live in Silicon Valley and exclusively use Apple products.

Into the story itself though, I truly do not understand being SO dependent on technology. Yes, I am typing this on my computer, but you have to use some technology. I own a Kindle, but always prefer an actual book in my hand and truthfully kind of regret even bothering with the Kindle in the first place. I'm not big on TV, though we do watch Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger and Super Why! - all educational things. Never in a million years would I let Eleanor watch Hannah Montana at FIVE. Eleanor has a toy laptop that again is all educational - music, letters, numbers, etc. I am in no way worried about Eleanor not having computer skills. Those will come in time. Most things can be okay in moderation and technology is one of them. They got rid of cameras, laptops, phones, etc for personal use, and missed out recording big moments, like their daughter's Kindergarten graduation. That is excessive. Yes, be in the moment, but also capture the memories for later in life. And why was the family so dependent on using their email? Everyone was so pissed that she was not emailing them family updates. Who even uses email that much?? I send my mom pictures of Eleanor, but I am not giving these long family updates. I use the phone and actually TALK to people. I don't even. Ugh. So stupid. And the thing with her going on and on bout how much time it takes to deal with all the digital pictures she takes, because of the snapping photos, editing them, uploading them, etc.

As a side note, the author kept saying 'on email'. "Oh, I'm not on email". YOU CAN'T BE ON EMAIL. IT IS A SERVICE YOU USE. This was one of the most irritating things. You can be 'on Facebook', it is a specific site. But all the time 'on email' this 'on email' that. Another testament to the poor writing.

Anyway, so once they get rid of their technology, this mom has to figure out how to actually entertain her child. They buy a bunch of new toys and art supplies at Toys R Us (I think) and make sure to tell us they spent $300. She talks about doing some activities, but there's not much mention at least early on about museums, zoos, the library, etc. So many things to do, but none of those cross her mind? Oh well, at least they can finally start bonding now that all the technology is out of the house. 

Also, not having any technology makes you forget to take your birth control pills for six days, just an FYI. Then you get to tell everyone how you are so worried about being pregnant and feeling selfish for not wanting another child blah blah.

All in all, gosh, I wish I could be a stay at home mom who does nothing but drink wine, eat chocolate, and edit my zillions of digital photos all day while ignoring my child and letting the TV entertain her. It is such a tough life in Silicon Valley.

Seriously awful, do not bother.

P.S. I am almost embarrassed for this chick with how obsessed she is with American Idol and publicly announcing it. Even in 2009.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Citadels of Power: The Castle in History and Archeology

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Rating: 5 Stars

Review:

So, I love castles. I love looking at pictures of them, watching documentaries about them, reading books about them and, above all, seeing them in person. I've been lucky enough to see a handful so far in the UK and Ireland, and can not wait to visit more in the future.

Naturally then, when I see what I think is a book about castles, I have to give it a read. I found this in the library catalog and reserved it immediately, not paying attention to the 'audio' label until later. No biggie, I figured, I can do a book on cd - then Eleanor can learn too! So, imagine my surprise to find it was not actually a book on cd, but a lecture series by Professor Finan. So, I guess technically I should not be reviewing it here because it is not a book, but it was wonderful!

Now, it was not perfect by any means, and there were portions that were somewhat repetitive, but I still enjoyed this very much. The lecture covered a variety of topics, ranging from the different kinds of castles, their place in society and the landscape, as well as castles specific to England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and castles built in the Holy Land by various Crusaders. I found that I knew many facts presented already, though was not nearly as familiar with the earthen and timber castles as presented in the second lecture.

Additionally, Professor Finan clearly cares very deeply about the subjects he is presenting, and even says that the last lecture pertaining to the end of castle-building is his least favorite because he loves the topic so much. While he is not necessarily the most exciting lecturer to listen to, it is worthwhile to hear the material he presents.

There is also a study guide included that has summaries, questions, suggested readings, other books of interest, and suggested websites for each of the 14 lectures. These are available through the company that produces the lecture series (free, but with a shipping charge of course), and I am considering ordering one.

Overall, highly recommended. Very interesting series and I am curious to see what other lectures are offered by The Modern Scholar.

As always, here are MY favorite castles (all photos taken by me in 2009/2010)...

Inside the gate of Stirling Castle (Scotland, 2009)

Edinburgh Castle (Scotland, 2009)

At Windsor Castle (England, 2009)

Blarney Castle (Ireland, 2010)

Malahide Castle (Ireland, 2010)

Bunratty Castle (Ireland, 2010)

(The remains of) Dublin Castle (Ireland, 2010)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

London: A History

Author: Francis Sheppard

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Review:

Naturally I found the early sections of the book far more interesting, as they pertained to the periods in England's history that I know and love so well. Unfortunately those sections as a whole only made up the first roughly third of the book, so it took a little more willpower to continue after saying goodbye to my beloved Anglo-Saxons, Plantagenets, and Tudors in regards to their relationships with London. I generally enjoy city biographies but I think what made this one so different for me is that I am also highly interested in very specific time periods in England, so later chapters (mainly from the Stuarts after James I and beyond) felt much heavier and slower to me, despite of course the writing style changing not at all.

It is interesting to me to watch cities slowly evolve into the places we know them as today. Having been to London myself, albeit an incredibly short venture due to a long delay out of Edinburgh, I can't even imagine it being anything than the bustling city it is today. I can't wait to go back and spend the time there that the city deserves, to see all the places still standing where so many of these great and terrible leaders stood, worked, slept, etc.

While the Victorian and Edwardian eras were more than a bit sluggish for me, my interest was piqued at the transformation of the city during the German air raids of WWII. So much of my past study of WWII focused on Germany, I truly had no idea the devastation and loss of life inflicted on London. It amazes me that so many palaces and castles survived, while countless citizens were left homeless. I can't even imagine sleeping in a bunk bed in the subway. Like many, I might have just taken the risk of sleeping at home.

Overall, this is a highly researched, thus very academic, work. At times even the periods of most interest to me were dry. Still, it's very informative and I can say I do recommend it.

Well Boo!

Also, a quick update on the summer reading programs...

A few hours after I posted about the Ralston library summer program, I received a phone call that I did, in fact, win the prize package that I wanted. Eleanor gets the Monsters, Inc. puzzle and we get to have a fun day at the Durham sometime soon - hopefully to see the Lost Egypt exhibit!

As for OPL's program, it officially ended yesterday. To be entered into the drawing for prizes, you are required to read 10 hours. For every ten hours after that, you level up, however many you continue to read. Unfortunately it is all on the honor system, and I am a little miffed that on Thursday I was in second place, at level 25 and the person in first place was at level 27. Then, magically on Friday morning I was bumped to 4th place by two people who had not been on the list ALL SUMMER - the first place holder claiming level 35 and the second place holder claiming level 34. What a bunch of baloney! I would be far more upset and likely to make a bigger fuss elsewhere besides my blog if the level you are on determines you chances for winning, but this is more so appealing to my competitive streak that hates losing to possible cheaters. Now, who knows, maybe they did actually read all those hours (350!), but why wait until the very last day to post your hours? Just kind of shady.

But ah well, I set my goal of 40 books and read 48, and read a grand total of 260 hours and 50 minutes. Not too shabby.

Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England

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Rating: 5 Stars

Review:

Anglo-Saxon England might be the most intriguing period for me in the history of the country. I have often wondered how different the world might be had England remained in the hands of King Harold and the Norman invasion thwarted. The possibilities are interesting. This time period is also frustrating, as there is very little evidence left of these great people, particularly from Alfred's time and before. The scraps of information and rare objects we do have are precious; it saddens me to think that what is now left of the mortal remains of this great king, the man who united the warring kingdoms into what would become England and fought off the Vikings time and again, are scattered somewhere in the soil among the modern buildings of Winchester.

Now, onto the book itself...

Everyone knows the (highly likely untrue) story of England's King Alfred, deprived of his throne and set to wander his lands as a fugitive, taking refuge with a poor swineherd. Here he is either reading a book or lost in thought by the fire, only to be rebuked by the swineherd's wife for letting the cakes burn. Alfred accepts the scolding, unrecognized by his own subjects as their former, but true, king.

It's a highly romanticized story of Alfred's time away from his throne, but one the author touches on time and again when noting the importance of and connection to religion in this time period. Christians at this time still believed wholeheartedly in the daily miracles of God, in a time where men we now call saints were living, breathing people among them. I have not read extensively about Alfred yet, though I have read quite a bit about Anglo-Saxon England in general, so I am not yet sure if this is the author's own conclusion, or the conclusion reached by scholars before him, but he refers to this story as a kind of metaphor for England as a whole. Early in Alfred's reign, in the four years of relative peace before the Vikings again returned and betrayal within Alfred's own court enabled the witan to depose him, Alfred did not do all he might have in order to prepare for the repeated attacks that could only be held off with the Danegeld for so long. The conclusion is that this story is a metaphor for Alfred's reign in that time - he didn't pay attention like he should have so the cakes burned, much like he did not take care to fortify his fledgling kingdom, and so it too burned.

It is amazing to me how, though Alfred lived and died in what would be considered the end of the 'Dark Ages', a significant portion of his time and funds were directed toward learning and educating his people. He was a major supporter of translating great works for his people to read in their native tongue - English. He even sent an item (called an ├Žstelwith these books when they were distributed to every bishopric - one of which was found in the late 1600s - which has today been concluded that its possible function was a pointer or a bookmark. 

File:Alfred Jewel Ashmolean 2014.JPG
(Property of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford)

(Property of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; the inscription on the side reads: 'Alfred Ordered/Had Me Made' - I have read different translations using either word)

King Alfred felt that literature and education was imperative to the survival of his kingdom. I of course don't mean education as we know it today: all the good little boys and girls in there desks with pencils sharpened, ready to absorb knowledge. I mean in the sense that he felt it was important for the men governing the burhs in his name to be learned men so that they would be able to read his laws, to dispense justice correctly and appropriately, and for all people to have access to the great books. And while it is again highly unlikely that he actually learned Latin in a single day, Alfred did set about educating himself as well and learned the already-dead language.

Whether you have read about Alfred before or this is your first foray into the arena, this is a fantastic read. It is written in such a way that it is accessible both to the lay reader looking for a 'popular history', as well as those who have background knowledge already and would be considered more academic. It chronicles the years and events leading up to Alfred's birth and sets the stage for this king to become, well, great. There's everything you would expect from the time period - Vikings raids, the warring kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, etc., betrayal, tragedy, and triumph. I highly recommend this one.