Category Archives: book review Thursdays

5 essential women’s biographies

I love, love, love reading historical women’s biographies. They’re history, art, science, anthropology, and gender study all in one convenient little package. I wouldn’t consider myself an ardent student of women’s studies, and in fact avoided the admirable Women’s Studies Department at my college like the plague, but reading about women and how they’ve been portrayed in and how they’ve adapted to society over hundreds or thousands of years is, quite possibly, the thing I enjoy the most about being an avid reader.

Do you like art, history, society, and women too? Then you might enjoy these books (all the links go to the book’s GoodReads profile):

American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante It calls itself “The Dramatic Story of America’s Founding Mother,” and while the story is little-known and indeed dramatic, there is so much to Anne Hutchinson’s life — her philosophy, her religion, her social ideas — than can be contained in one volume such as this. What this is is a bare introduction to proto–Colonial New England society, with all its attendant issues and intrigues, that just whets the appetite for more. The story of Hutchinson is clearly, cleanly, and very well told. Do no blame me if you suddenly find yourself wanting to reread The Scarlet Letter.

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel We all know about Galileo, right? And how he was a scientist in Renaissance Italy, and he said he thought the Earth revolved around the Sun, not vice versa, and the Pope got mad at him? But I’ll bet no one knows the name of Suor Maria Celeste, born Virginia Galilei, until they have read Galileo’s Daughter — and then her name will be written in your heart. Committed by her father to a convent near Florence at age 13, Maria Celeste kept up a voluminous correspondence with her father that illuminates not only her own intelligence — a rival to his own — but also the mental and spiritual struggles Galileo endured as a result of his quite-literally-Earth-shattering scientific work and his conflicts with the Church through the end of his life, and the comfort and support which Maria Celeste gave him in his darkest hours.

Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir My especial favorite! Katherine de Roet sits at the root of an enormous and powerful family tree, and Weir’s work as a documentary historian shines here in her reconstruction of Katherine’s life and times. Through her life-long love affair with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Katherine gave birth to the Royal Houses of York, Tudor, and Stuart, and her descendants continue to shape the world stage today. And yet we know so little about Katherine, and much of what Weir puts forth here is very well-informed conjecture. But she lays out her proofs and her documents with a clear purpose and says with confidence what she can in all fairness say, points out where she disagrees with other historians and why, and admits when the evidence is sketchy and she’s building puzzle pieces as she goes.

Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope by Eleanor Herman As a young girl she barely escaped the cloister; as a woman, she dominated the ear of Pope Innocent X and as much as ran the Papal States — to her own ends, of course. Olimpia’s life was chock full of adventure and intrigue, and Olimpia herself was full to bursting with life and vitality, and it shows in this lush bio by Eleanor Herman. Here was a woman who wasn’t about to let life (and men) tell her what to do, SHE told THEM. Do I think she was her brother-in-law’s mistress? In the sexual way, a resounding No; but in the social way, an emphatic Yes. She knew her social powers and was not afraid to use them in any way that would keep her secure and protected. Herman’s prose paints vivid pictures of Olimpia, the Papal Court, and the influence Olimpia held over the Papacy and therefore over all of Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, for she who holds the purse-strings controls the world.

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The Tragedy of Katherine, Mary and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle Speaking of women controlling the world… Many people know the name of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen,” so called because her reign, if it could be called a proper reign, lasted only 9 days. De Lisle’s biography of the three Grey sisters turns the traditional view of Jane Grey and her sisters on its head — instead of as victims, it paints Jane, Katherine, and Mary as rebels and real women who were very clearly aware not only of their power, but of what they could do with it. Being a woman with royal blood in her veins — and her uterus — made these girls into dynastic pawns. Not for them stable lives and love matches. Jane, the oldest sister, was Edward I’s legitimate heir by the terms of his will, and she knew she had a legal leg to stand on — even though she wound up on the block for her troubles. She was in the right, but the Tudor side simply had more brawn. If things had gone differently for the Grey sisters, the last 500 years would have looked radically different and even today, we’d be living with the aftereffects of Jane, the First Queen of England. It is time we saw Jane Grey and her sisters through a proper lens — contrary to degrading the three women, de Lisle’s work lifts them up to their proper places as women and royals.

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Fixing Delilah

Fixing DelilahFixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Could not put this book down for long today…A charming, wrenching story about Delilah Hannaford and what it means to be family.

First, a note about the name: I couldn’t stop thinking of the Hannaford grocery store chain. That is all.

I love that this story is unembellished. It creates so much room for the reader to fill in the blanks about the small town in Vermont where Delilah’s mother and aunt grew up and the people who populate it. There’s just enough detail to flesh out the story and characters, but there’s so much room for each reader to come in and complete the picture. Just enough room for us all to step in to Delilah’s shoes and say, Ahh, I know this.

Much has been made in reviews about this book’s similarities, passing or otherwise, to the works of Ockler’s fellow YA author Saran Dessen. I see the comparisons, really I do, but Ockler’s style is less detail-dependent and, shall we say, picky than Dessen’s. Dessen’s books and female leads make me feel like nothing has been overlooked in the creation of the story, which makes for a vibrant picture but leaves very little elbow room for me to identify with the character if I haven’t been smack in the girl’s shoes myself. There’s lots of real detail, but sometimes there’s so much that it permanently separates me from the girl in the story I’m supposed to be feeling for. I’ve never been in Delilah’s shoes totally, but I empathize with her wholly for those fleeting bits and pieces we share. And the ending of Delilah’s summer, and Fixing Delilah itself, is so open-ended but hopeful and full of positive energy and also closure. It is a true portrait of a teenage girl’s summer, not a starting and an ending all tied up in one neat little package, but a fluid thing filled with before and after and here and there and now and then. You have a sense that the characters started out well before the book did and will keep going along well after it ends, without feeling set up for a sequel. (Note: Please let there be no sequel. I love these characters right where they ended up, each and every one of them.)

Now I want chocolate hazelnut lattes. Lots of ’em.

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Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome

Roma: The Novel of Ancient RomeRoma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Steven Saylor definitely took on a huge task when he chose to write a novelized history of Rome from the viewpoint of one of the oldest patrician families, but least-known in modern times — the Pinarii, and their cousins the Potitii. The novel touches on the important turning-points of Rome’s history, when members of the Pinarii or the Potitii are constantly being caught up in momentous events — the sack of Rome by Gauls, the Carthaginian wars, the campaign of Scipio, the dictatorship of Sulla, and so on — and actually living the events, with the uncertainty and awe of a person caught up in the middle of something with no idea how it will end. The Pinarius or Potitius central to each episode of the book is our main character but not history’s main character, and as the family descends through time and is influenced by past character’s actions, so are we as readers. This is half-story, half-history, in the Livian vein and a great homage to Livy’s history of Rome. The facts are mostly solid, and if two “facts” were available, well we are writing a novel here, not a textbook, and we (the writer) are allowed to pick whichever one fits the story we want to tell the best. I feel compelled now to check a few of Saylor’s facts, like was Julius Caesar’s sister Julia really married to a Pinarius, or has Saylor made that up out of whole cloth; because if all these occurrences of Pinarii and Potitii were Saylor has them occurring are documentable fact, then Saylor’s masterful filling-in-of-the-blanks is even more refined and elegant than I thought.

The source material Saylor lists in the book’s Afterword is also excellent, including his use of T.P. Wiseman’s Remus A Roman Myth as source material on the pre-foundation history of Rome and the various foundation myths. I cannot praise enough this decision on Saylor’s part. Saylor’s Remus was not a carbon copy of Wiseman’s Remus, but many of Wiseman’s observations seem to have influenced Saylor’s character creation, and his imagination of the earliest layout of the city. Whereas Wiseman deals academically with the Romulus & Remus story, Saylor says to himself “How can I make this plausible in the real world, not the world of myth?” and then he goes and does so. I can’t say enough, even in the review of a different book, about the value of Wiseman’s work on Remus to classical scholars; and if you are going to take on the task of tackling Saylor’s Roma, then Wiseman’s Remus: A Roman Myth will subsequently be no trouble at all and might help the reader flesh out the pre-historic Roman world as presented by Saylor. The one is so clearly, and well, informed by the other.

The omniscient narration of Roma does not have the same voice as the character-centric narration of Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder mystery series, for which I am truly grateful. The writing style employed for mysteries would not suit a larger work such as Roma. Different genres require different approaches, and it is not every writer who can go from one to another easily and successfully. The tone and style of Roma is suitable to a long fiction work with many characters and a complex plot full of details. The book has been broken up into historical episodes, loosely based on a single generation of characters, but of course the common thread running through all the episodes is the family being focussed on (usually the Pinarii). You only need to worry about one Lucius Pinarius at a time, which is a relief, as Romans were not very creative namers and you tended to get two or three of every name in a single generation. When one Lucius Pinarius thinks back to the actions of another Lucius Pinarius, Saylor says something like “Lucius remembered that his great-great-grandfather, also named Lucius Pinarius, did such-and-such or knew so-and-so,” and that is enough to jog the reader’s memory: “Oh yeah, I remember that,” or “Oh my gosh kid, you are so misinformed!” But as misinformation (or lies?) from a previous generation become enshrined in popular memory, they become historical fact, and it seems to me that in the book itself Saylor has found a way to comment on the veracity (or not) of the historical “facts” we’re operating with today. Did it really happen the way we think it did? Or is there a historical truth there that will never come to light? And how does knowing that is a possibility change the way we view history itself?

In short: This may be a bit overwhelming for the Roman history novice, who isn’t vaguely familiar with the people and places Saylor employs in his narrative. There’s a lot in this book to soak up. If you aren’t daunted by that, all the better for you. For the reader fairly familiar with Roman history, especially the the early books of Livy and the half-forgotten period of the Kings and the early Republic, my recommendation is “have at with abandon, you will love this.”

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The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies

The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (The World of Beatrix Potter: Peter Rabbit)The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review goes for all the bunny-centric Beatrix Potter books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit. I’m just attaching it to The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies because I think it has the cutest drawings (leetle behbeh bunneh ears!).

You don’t realize, when you are a child, how perfect and lifelike Beatrix Potter’s illustrations are. That takes adult eyes. Looking at the drawings for these 4 books, I couldn’t get over how lifelike Potter’s rabbits were. It was clear to me that she knew her subjects in the most intimate way; she had been observing the wildlife of northern England for years to be able to draw rabbits in such lifelike ways, even while anthropomorphizing them (Mrs. Flopsy Bunny in her little housekeeper’s apron?!? Adorable!). The tenderness and reality of the colors are also amazing: the variations of brown in the bunnies’ coats; the shades of green in a lettuce leaf; the slightly misty quality to views of Old Mr. MacGregor’s garden that evoke a golden age of the English countryside that probably never existed. Or maybe it did. Or maybe it does, in our imaginations and hearts.

Looking back, one might think Beatrix Potter’s tales are a bit harsh for children (e.g., The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit: The Bad Rabbit beats up another rabbit and takes his carrot, then gets shot at by a hunter. He doesn’t die, only loses his tail and whiskers, but Oi! Violence!). However, I don’t think they are excessively so (the Bad Rabbit does not die; there is no bloody bunny carcass displayed on the meadow or hanging from the hunter’s fist), and I read these books as a child and turned out fairly fine, so I have very little qualm about passing them on to the next generation.

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I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles

I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other BattlesI Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles by Lily Burana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the story of a former punk-rawk stripper turned Army wife, and what it means to be a military wife in post-9/11 America. Lily is not just a war bride, she is a War on Terror Bride. We travel with her from her first meeting with her husband-to-be, through his deployment in the Global War on Terror, and back to the coddling traditions of the West Point community. Along the way, Lily takes us through her harrowing crisis that nearly destroyed her marriage, but that ultimately made her a stronger, more savvy Army wife.

I enjoyed hearing that other people had the odd commissary experiences I remember from my childhood, and have noticed the same things I have noticed about military home decor. Getting a DEERS card? Check. Living in a fishbowl? Check. Duplexes? Check. I also identify with her almost maternal feeling for service men and women, especially in the wake of the Global War on Terror when some people (read: civilians) have the attitude that it is individual servicemembers’ fault that we are fighting a war-without-end-in-sight in the Middle East. Burana adequately expresses what it means to be against the war without being against servicemembers.

The upswing in flag-waving patriotism immediately following 9/11 annoyed me to no end because I knew it was false and reactionary. To me, patriotism is not about putting a flag on the front of your house or a flag sticker on your car, or wearing a flag pin (Sarahpalinsayswhat?). The flag is a symbol, not an accessory. Patriotism is about giving up your chance at a normal life in order to serve your country, not yourself. It is moving away from your family and childhood home for parts unknown and unforeseen, giving your will over to a higher power, not unlike a religious acolyte, in service to that power. Patriotism is the mothers who keep on when their husbands are on an extended TDY in Alabama and their 5-year-olds have The Worst Case of Chicken Pox Ever, in North Dakota, in November, and there is not one smear of calamine lotion on base. Patriotism is the fathers who can’t tuck their daughters in at night because they’re on Red Alert, waiting for the Soviets to fire the long-range missiles they’ve been threatening to fire for 40 years.

It is, as Burana says, about rendering honors: to the flag, to the acres of military dead, to the veterans of wars past and present, and to our servicemembers both active and retired. It is being surrounded by traditions that bring each individual in to the fold of a large, closely-knit family that stretches back through time to the roots of our nation. Patriotism, in many cases, is about silence and stillness. The stillness and silence of taps being played, of the flag being lowered at sunset, of a moment of silence. It is a stone monument, stone as silent and still as the tomb, to the ones who went before, to the ones who never came home.

Flag-waving patriots annoy me because they’re missing the entire point. Patriotism does not wave flags ostentatiously, then sit around and wait while other people do the work. Patriotism quietly goes and does what’s necessary without ever making a fuss, without ever calling attention to itself or bragging about what it has done. Patriotism endures hardship of all sorts for the sake of service to a greater power. The patriots are not just the service men and women in combat fatigues and uniforms, they are also the families who gave their husbands, daughters, mothers, and sons in service to the military, who keep things together at home in the meantime.

Michelle Obama is as much a patriot as her husband, for she has sacrificed her privacy and a life of her own choosing to give her husband to the country. Their daughters are no less patriots for being children, for they have given their father to the country in order for him to serve the higher ideals of the nation. He might miss a few bedtime stories, a few family dinners, but hopefully they get why this is necessary and are okay with it, or someday will be. If so, they are true patriots. They’ve given up the freedom and security of normal childhood in order for their father to serve; they’re missing out on best friends and a hometown and a feeling of normalcy. Some day I hope they will look back and say, “That’s okay, someone had to do it.” They might not be wrapped in an American flag and singing the Star-Spangled Banner, but they are expressing their affection for the country in the way that has been given to them. In modern-day America, there are a few people who believe that if you aren’t shouting your patriotism from the rooftops, you aren’t a REAL AMERICAN. And if you don’t support the war, you don’t support the troops. And Lily and I are here to tell you, that is bull.

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Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of LancasterMistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Alison Weir. Her writing style is engaging and friendly, and it is obvious she knows her way around the contemporary historical texts concerning her subjects. However, this biography of Katherine Swynford, née de Roët, Duchess of Lancaster, shows without a doubt Weir’s talents as a historical researcher, assiduously checking and cross-checking everything available to her in order to get as close to the truth as possible.

Much about Katherine’s life must be construed from a tiny handful of documents, and without a vast knowledge of the customs and mores of the period, a biographer would be totally at sea. Weir’s conclusions are carefully outlined and logical, and she takes pains to address (and refute, if necessary) the conclusions come to by other, earlier chroniclers. Katherine sits at the root of a large genealogical tree, and the influence of her relationship with John of Gaunt had ramifications on late 14th century English culture and continues to influence Anglo-American culture, literature, and politics today. But so little is known of her. Her will does not survive (but we know she made one), no letters in her hand survive (but we know she was highly educated and most likely incredibly literate for her day), and there are no contemporary likenesses of her left to us. Her children, those legitimate from her first marriage and those made legitimate after her marriage to their father, the Duke of Lancaster, played enormous roles in shaping 14th, 15th, and 16th century England, with her blood continuing to run in the veins of the present English monarchs. John of Gaunt has been called the “grandfather of Europe,” for the descendants of his three wives married in to practically every ruling house in Europe, from Portugal — England’s oldest standing alliance, thank you John of Gaunt — to Germany. Ever heard of Geoffrey Chaucer? Say thank you to Katherine: he was her brother-in-law, and attained much of his fame through oblique preferment by John and other members of the royal family who held Katherine in high esteem and sought her favor or the Duke’s by promoting her relatives.

And yet Katherine was practically expunged from the rolls of history within a generation of her death, and she is almost a total unknown today. We’ve all heard of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Elizabeth the First, Mary Queen of Scots, and Isabella of Castile who commissioned Christopher Columbus to sail west from Europe in search of a new route to the Indies; many are familiar with the suspicious death of Richard II, with Henry the Navigator and the Wars of the Roses, or know the significance of the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. But very, very few can name the man and the woman from whom all of this sprang.

It is about time, and I think the culture is right, for such an excellent biography of Katherine Swynford to be brought forward. She was the daughter of a humble Hainaultier knight, but she rose to be the second lady in the land, second only to the Queen of England, and her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to the nth degrees became towering figures of English history, continuing to shape the modern world. The story of her love affair with the powerful Duke of Lancaster is almost exactly the story of another royal love affair, a modern day one, and like Weir I will gracefully avoid pointing fingers, but as Weir does I shall quote the late Queen Mum: Men of title and privilege simply do not marry their mistresses. Such a marriage as John and Katherine had, one made for love after the end of a marriage made for political and dynastic reasons, especially when the groom was such a powerful, wealthy, influential man and a good catch, and the bride relatively low-born though extremely well-bred — “Even in our own time such marriage would cause comment” if such a man married such a woman, his long-time mistress, for love.

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The Wolf in the Parlor, Part 2

The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection between Humans and DogsThe Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection between Humans and Dogs by Jon Franklin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I noticed in some other readers’ reviews that they were disappointed that there wasn’t more science to Franklin’s thesis. I disagree with those reviewers. I didn’t ever think this was going to be a straight scientific work, but more of an experiential work drawing on science knowledge as a guide to exploration — science for non-scientists, I guess. What I think is far more important than any science is Franklin’s observations about the relationship between Dog and Man, with his own relationship with his dog Charlie being Exhibit A. (Although I do have to disagree with his characterization of the Welsh corgi.) The science behind the evolution of the domesticated dog from the wild wolf is secondary to the socio-cultural, anthropological, and psychological affects thereof. I know how evolution works and natural selection and adaptation and blah blah blah, but I (and Franklin) want to know WHY you don’t see humans without dogs or dogs without humans, and why when dogs lost their value as working partners to 99% of the human race and we became modern city-dwellers we yet kept our canine companions. I live in a sub-urban beach cottage, I don’t own any cattle or other livestock, so why do I feel it is necessary that I own, care for, and pay for the upkeep of a herding dog? Because she licks me dry from the kneecaps down when I get out of the shower, she tells me when it’s time to stop working and go for a walk, and she sits at the end of the bed when I read a book until my husband comes and gets her to go outside before bedtime and go to bed in her crate. In other words, there is no practical reason for a person like me to have a dog like Amy. And yet, I do.

Reading about Franklin’s experience as a dog owner and a person who thinks about dogs and how we relate to them has helped me look at my new dog-human relationship, and I have since grasped a few important things: I have to be patient. The canine-human symbiote can’t form overnight. I must agree to be the thinker; Amy agrees to be the emotional anchor. If I get stressed, she will get stressed. I have to let her tell me when I am stressed, because half the time I don’t know it, and the other half of the time I just ignore the stress and plow on.

I like Franklin’s style and I think this book has contributed to my life as a thinking person. His theories about the development of the human-dog relationship are clear-headed, even though they are just theories and must necessarily remain so: no archaeological evidence will ever prove (or disprove) his thoughts about the follower wolf, human selection among the follower wolf pack, and the psycho-social development of the dog-human alliance. Sure, science can look at dog brains and wolf brains and see where they differ, and dog genes and wolf genes and find where they branch off, but no amount of hard science can capture prehistoric, pre-literate human culture and say, “Yes, that is how the wolf became the dog.” I’m partial to Franklin’s theory myself and don’t see where a scientist could find a legitimate reason to disagree with it. I think this is a must-read for any animal-loving person, whether they own a dog or not.

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