Posts Tagged ‘review’

Sacred History of Britain – Book Review

March 28, 2008

Sacred History of Britain CoverI found The Sacred History of Britain by Martin Palmer on the discount table at Half Price Books for $5. Sometimes there is a good reason that books are on the discount table, but I decided to give it a chance anyway. Religion? British history? A bargain? Count me in!

I am very glad that I gave this book a chance, as it was quite intriguing. In all seriousness, it was a very interesting book. As the title perhaps implies, Palmer traces the idea of the ‘sacred’ from British prehistory, by use of archeology through the advent of Christianity in the isles up to the present day panoply of religions in Britain (including the profusion of Christian sects).

I really appreciated Palmer’s evenhandedness on this subject. He is a Christian, I would guess an Anglican from the work, and he sets out that fact from the beginning of the book so that you can be aware of any possible bias. He was more than willing, however, to be candid about issues the church has had with corruption, etc. He seemed to try very hard to divorce his personal emotions regarding the church from this work. He was almost poetic about some of his experiences with sacred places in Britain, yet he de-romanticized everything from pre-historic religion to the Reformation.

Palmer is a great writer who kept the history interesting and kept the pace of the book moving. I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest either in the history of religion or in the history of Britain. Secular history buffs won’t feel preached at and should enjoy a different perspective on British history.

Buy this book on Amazon:The Sacred History of Britain: Landscape, Myth & Power:The Forces That Have Shaped Britain’s Spirituality

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Memoirs of Cleopatra – Book Review

March 26, 2008

Memoirs of CleopatraMargaret George’s “Memoirs of Cleopatra” begins with the young princess Cleopatra‘s memory of General Pompey coming to Egypt and her role in charming him with her wit and personality in order to help her father keep his kingdom and of course tells her story up through her infamous death.

I feel like I did not give this book the attention it needed. Due to my large stack of TBR books (all still sitting in the bathroom, waiting for the bookshelves to go back, by the way), I just didn’t have patience for a 950 page book. I see that I had read 250 pages, and then be annoyed that it barely seemed like I had gotten anywhere.

That being said, I don’t think that the book seemed as if it were long just for the sake of being long, I don’t think that there was much in the story that was superfluous. George is a great author, and I felt that I could experience what the characters were experiencing. What I didn’t expect was the fact that I did not feel that I became Cleopatra’s partisan. I understood her motivations and didn’t think them ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ but I also understood the motivations of Octavian and others who were her ‘enemies’. Sure, I tended to think that Octavian was more ‘bad’ than Cleopatra, but I did not feel that he was really being vilified. Surely that is a gift, to write relatively sympathetically an historical character and yet not demonize her opponents. I really just got the impression that, for the most part, people were acting as they felt they needed to do for the good of their countries and their families.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me, though, was the afterward, explaining what in the book was historical and what was not. I wish more historical fiction did this. I found it fascinating how much of her story that most of us know as written by renowned Roman poets and writers was written by men who were indeed her enemies.

I will give this book the highest praise I can give historical fiction: it made me want to go and read more about all of the characters involved, including perhaps from some primary sources.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Memoirs of Cleopatra: A Novel

The Botany of Desire – Book Review

March 19, 2008

Botany of Desire coverThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World is the second book I’ve read by Michael Pollan (and still, his name makes me laugh everytime…his name is ‘Pollan’…and he writes about plants…anyone?). I picked up this book because I very much enjoyed The Omnivore’s Dilemma and was hoping for something similar which, in some ways, this was.

Unlike Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire was not primarily about our food supply and what/how we eat, for that I’ll have to pick up his new book, In Defense of Food. In this book, Pollan was making the case that the relationship between people and plants was not as one-sided as it may seem; it is not only people that are using plants, but also plants that are using people. Essentially, the argument is that certain plants have adapted to fulfill certain human desires (hence the title), leading to their further propagation. The plants and desires he looks at are apples:sweetness, tulips:beauty, marijuana:intoxication, and potatoes:control.

Pollan really did do a good job showing how the ability of each plant to fulfill the stated desire led to its genes being spread by people, often at the expense of plants that had not adapted to fulfill any great human desires. I am by no means a botanist, so it is somewhat hard for me to determine the accuracy of all of Pollan’s statements, but the ones with which I did have familiarity seemed plausible at the least. The Botany of Desire is not a title I would typically see myself pick up, and if it had been any other author, I would have left it on the shelves for the next interested party; however, Pollan has a gift for making topics of plants and food both interesting and accessible. He is also fantastic at showing the impact of plants, food, and the topics surrounding them on the lives of normal people, without getting ‘preachy’. I was happy to find out that The Omnivore’s Dilemma was not just a fluke, and I will continue to seek out Pollan’s writing, published both in books and in the New York Times.

Buy this book on Amazon:
Paperback: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
Hardback: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Queens of England – Book Review

March 14, 2008

Queens of England coverQueens of England by Norah Lofts is a comprehensive overview of every Queen of England beginning with the wife of William the Conqueror and going through Queen Elizabeth II. It was a remarkably easy read, considering it comprises about 900 years of English royal history. It was also a very engaging read, I learned about many queens I had never heard of, the wives of many kings I had never heard of.

The book, however, definitely had an agenda. While it didn’t ruin the book for me, it definitely dampened my enthusiasm for the the work a little. When I noticed the chapters on each queen start to get much longer shortly before the reign of Queen Victoria (as many pages on Caroline of Brunswick as Elizabeth Tudor? And as many on Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as Mary Tudor? Really?), I thought that I detected a 19th and 20th century bias. By the time I reached Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II, I realized that a ‘recent history bias’ wasn’t quite what the issue was. The book actually seems to have been written as an apologetic for the modern institution of the monarchy, to establish the long history of English royalty and in doing so argue for its continuation in the person of Queen Elizabeth II.

Lofts directly addressed some specific criticisms against the Queen and in fact attacked what she referred to as the “Age of Criticism.” This aspect of the book made the last two chapters my two least favorite of the book. The book had some other issues as well.

First, Lofts definitely assumed a fair degree of prior knowledge with British history, she would make off-hand comments referring to other events or the fates of the princes and princesses who were the progeny of whatever queen was currently being discussed. As the book was clearly written for a British audience (to whom else would she need to defend the continuation of the monarchy?), perhaps that was actually a fairly safe assumption and, while I was often confused, the nonchalant references sometimes made me simply want to know more about the subjects.

Second, there seemed to be some significant editing errors. There were absolutely sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, of which I could not make heads or tails no matter how many times I tried. Often these sentences or paragraphs seemed to be flatly contradictory, so I would generally just skip them and read on.

Lastly, I simply wanted more information about many of these women! Some had as little as two pages, including a picture.
However, even with these problems, Queens of England is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in royalty, the history of England, or just of the lives of women throughout history.

Buy this book on Amazon: Queens of England

The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur – Book Review

March 12, 2008

The Translator coverI was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari from someone who received it as an Early Reviewer and passed it along to me:

This was a very poignant memoir of a very important issue. Daoud is a Zaghawa tribesman from Darfur. After being educated, he leaves the country to find work and make money to send home to his family. Daoud returns home to Darfur in the midst of the genocide to check on his family. Shortly after he arrives, their village is attacked and everyone who survives is forced to flee for the border with Chad. It is in the refugee camps in Chad that Daoud finds his role in fighting the genocide: as a speaker of Zaghawa, Arabic, and English, Daoud is able to act as a translator first for UN and aid workers serving the refugees and later for reporters going into Sudan to report on the genocide first hand. While describing his experiences, Daoud is quite good about explaining the history of the conflict and of the region as a whole in a very understandable way.

Daoud Hari’s voice is supremely evident in this memoir. As I was reading I felt that I was sitting in front of him, listening to him tell me about what he had seen and experienced. I was actually glad only to be reading the account, not hearing it personally; there was so much pain and hardship in the words that I know I could never bear to hear those words with an emotional voice behind them. The story comes out both with a freshing straight-forwardness as well as with elegant use of foreshadowing and building the narrative, it is really beautifully told. This book should be purchased and then passed on to as many people as you can get to read it so that more people can actually feel what is happening in Darfur, instead of just hearing about it in a detached manner.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur

Victoria Victorious – Book Review

March 11, 2008

Victoria Victorious cover“Victoria Victorious” is one of the the longer of the Jean Plaidy books I have read. Now, this makes some sense as Queen Victoria is still the English monarch with the longest reign. However, the length, composition, and flow of the novel reminded me greatly of “Queen of This Realm,” Plaidy’s novel of Queen Elizabeth.

Indeed, Victoria herself seems to be inviting a comparison between her life and reign and that of Queen Elizabeth I. There is a scene near the beginning of the novel where Victoria is young and is playing with her dolls. One of her dolls is a doll of Elizabeth I and Victoria shows a strong amount of disdain and dislike for her, calling her “that doll” or “that Queen.” The emotion seems to be one almost of fear, fear that Victoria cannot live up to Elizabeth, that she can never be as great as Elizabeth. I know very little about Queen Victoria other than what Plaidy presents, but as far as Plaidy’s writings on both queens, it seems Victoria’s fears came true.

There are two things that stand out about Queen Elizabeth, particularly in Plaidy’s “Queen of This Realm”: the first thing is that, above all, Elizabeth is determined to keep the love of her people; the second is that she shall be King as well as Queen and will be ruled by no man. These political determinations of Elizabeth’s serve her well and keep her crown relatively safe on her head. Victoria’s crown seems to be safe only because by that point in British history, the monarch has become largely a figurehead and few outside figures care to challenge her right.

By no means did Victoria keep the love of her people. She had, I believe, 7 assassination attempts, although evidently not all of them were in earnest. Nor did she seem to care to keep the people’s love. Whenever they turned against her, Victoria turned back against them, railing about their stupidity and willingness to be led. Actually, it seemed that it was Victoria who was willing to be led…

I had high hopes for the Queen when I was reading about the girl. When she was younger, Victoria seemed able to stand up for herself and what she thought right, most tellingly to her mother and her mother’s…whatever he was…John Conyer. Once she is Queen, however, Victoria seems to simply float merrily on behind whatever man has earned her trust, be it Lord Melbourne, Benjamin Disraeli, or Prince Consort Albert.

Honestly, this was probably my least favorite of all of Plaidy’s books I have read. However, I do not think that this was necessarily because of failings on her part. First of all, it may be possible that I simply prefer to read historical fiction with a greater historical distance from the present, I constantly found myself trying to figure out the lineage to the current British royals, and perhaps that simply is not as interesting to me. Second of all, the events in Victoria’s queenship seem to come out from nowhere and disappear back to nowhere; however, this seems to be more of a function of her not having a particularly good head for politics, nor being particularly interested in it, at least as Plaidy writes her. Third, I fairly disliked both Victoria and Albert, as well as many of the people around them. Unlike regular fiction, where it is not typically well received to write thoroughly unlikeable characters, historical fiction is trying to convey the lives of real people, many of whom are quite unlikeable. It may simply be that Plaidy found Victoria unlikeable and wrote her thus, without simply giving in to the rumors about her.

Overall, this book seemed a good introduction to the reign of Queen Victoria – no matter how obnoxious and smug I found her husband to be.

Buy this book on Amazon: Victoria Victorious: The Story of Queen Victoria

Holding Her Head High – Book Review

March 4, 2008

Holding Her Head High coverEarly Reviewer badgeI “finished” Holding Her Head High: Twelve Single Mothers Who Championed Their Children and Changed History by Janine Turner. When I say that I finished it, I mean that I made it about 3/4 of the way through the book by sheer force of will but finally just gave up. I have problems with how the book was marketed, with the oft cliché writing, and with many of the historical assumptions. I REALLY wanted to finish reading this book so that I could catalog ALL of my issues with it, but as I read I found more and more that I was just sick of putting post-it notes in the book and I was a bit worried that nobody was going to want to read a 5 page single-spaced review tearing the book apart.

This book could have had value as a devotional or as almost a journal/memoir of her recording her faith story of being a single mom in relation to these women. Unfortunately, the publisher described her book as this, “describes the social implications for women and children from the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages to Pioneer days.” That is precisely what she did NOT do. I expect that a book that is describing social implications of things between 100 and 1700 years ago would be written with an historical perspective. She clearly had some ‘facts’ about the periods, but not an understanding of the period as a whole, as there were some deeply flawed historical assumptions that seemed to be more “this is how I want it to have been, so this is how it was.” She sort of tried to have an historical perspective, but the style was all wrong. I felt bad, but I actually felt bored by the lives of these women who must have actually been fascinating – and I’m a history major!

I cannot go into this any further right now, or I’ll just get as annoyed as I was while reading this book. Perhaps later I’ll categorized for all of you some of my specific issues…they’re all still marked with post-it notes.

Edit 3/7/08: If you would like to get this book and read it for yourself, click here and perhaps I can send it to you…

Buy this book on Amazon: Holding Her Head High: 12 Single Mothers Who Championed Their Children and Changed History

Leonardo’s Swans: A Novel – Book Review

March 3, 2008

Leonardo's Swans coverLeonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex tells the story of the daughters of the Duke of Ferrera. Isabella, the elder daughter, desires to be powerful and adored, and most of all to achieve immortality by being painted by the Magistro, Leonardo Da Vinci. Her younger sister, Beatrice, desires most of all to love and be loved in return. Tension arises between the two when Beatrice marries Ludovico Sforza, one of the most powerful men in Italy and the patron of Leonardo Da Vinci.

These sisters lived during an extremely volatile time in Italian politics, a time of shifting allies and foreign threats. They had to deal with politics, government administration, their husbands’ affairs, threat of invasion by the French, and the frustration of working with Leonardo Da Vinci.

Karen Essex wrote this novel in hopes of setting a background for the life and works of Da Vinci through the women who appeared as subjects in his work, including Bianca and Isabella D’Este, Cecilia Gallerani, and Lucrezia Crivelli. She does this primarily through Bianca and Isabella, both of whom were strong, able women who were great assets to their husbands in the administration of their states. Essex’s goal may have worked too well, however; the novel seems to be more about Bianca and Isabella than about Leonardo, he seems to be more the incidental character, which is a bit incongruous considering the title of the novel. I did feel, however, that the novel was well written and had that thing which I most value in a historical fiction work: an historical description of the fates of the characters, in order to further the reader’s understanding of the period and the events.

Overall, this is a book I would definitely recommend. Perhaps those who have been stuck on the Tudors of England might like to move to Italy to help expand horizons; there are even some characters familiar to Tudor afficianados, French Kings Louis XII and Francois I, as well as Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian.

Buy this book on Amazon: Leonardo’s Swans: A Novel

The Other Boleyn Girl – Movie Review

March 1, 2008

Tonight I dragged my fiance to see The Other Boleyn Girl, the movie based on the book of the same name by Philippa Gregory. Here’s the short, non-spoiler version of the review: it is entertaining. If you like historical fiction, but know little to nothing about this time period, other than the fact that Anne married Henry VIII and lost her head, you will probably quite enjoy this movie. If you have read Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, some parts will slightly annoy you, but overall you will probably like it. If you have studied that period in England, or if you have read a lot of historical fiction around that period in England, you will still mostly enjoy it, but be extrememly annoyed by a lot of it. Essentially, the movie seemed to stick with the book where the book most differed from the historical record and veer from the book where the book most stuck with historical record, making for a rather un-historical film. Sure, the basic history’s there, as my fiance pointed out: Anne, Mary, and Henry are all there; it is set in England; Anne dies. If you would like to see some of my specific issues with the movie (and potential spoilers) please click the link to read the rest of this entry. The story was already about power, sex, betrayal, and religion, why bother changing it? (more…)

Three Cups of Tea – Book Review

March 1, 2008

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Three Cups of Tea coverThree cups of tea is the story of an accidental philanthropist and peace/education advocate. Greg Mortenson was a climber who failed to summit K2 after having to rescue another climber in his group on the ascent. On the descent he got separated from the group and from his porter. He made it down the mountain, but made a wrong turn and instead of ending up in the larger town of Skadu, wandered into the small village of Korphe, where he was taken care of while he recuperated. Before he left, he offered to send supplies to their school as a thank you, and was taken and shown what their ‘school’ was: teacher-less children (they shared a teacher with another village) sitting on the ground, doing their lessons on their own with sticks in the dirt. He vowed then that, one way or another, he would build them a school, and thus began an all-encompassing drive to educate and empower the children of the Pakistani hinterlands, particularly the girls.

Reading this book I frequently got the feeling that this HAD to be fiction, it simply was too crazy to be believed. The amount of drive Mortenson had was unbelievable; he did the impossible again and again. Discussing the book at my book club last night, one of my friends admitted that he almost made her feel bad about herself. She is teaching in an extremely difficult school on the South Side of Chicago, and he made her feel almost inadequate for being tired at the end of the day and not doing more than what she is currently doing. It was easy to get pulled into this type of thinking: Mortenson was practically living in his car while trying to raise the money for his first school, it really makes you question what you’ve been doing with your life all this time. It also makes you want to send him money.

Perhaps one of the most powerful things about the book was the interaction Greg had with the people of Pakistan. It really came across how much he had learned from them, and how he learned to be a humble servant, not the arrongant American coming to ‘save’ them. He had a great respect for their culture, and I think it would be beneficial to our country if more Americans would read books like this one, where they come into contact with REAL people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries in that region, where they could have an opportunity to see these people as fellow human beings. Most of the people with whom Mortenson was in contact just wanted their children to be educated and to have more options than they did – not so different from people in America. It was very heartening to see the mutual love and respect between Mortenson and the people with whom he was working. He was actually in Pakistan on 9/11 and all of his friends kept sympathizing with him for what had happened in ‘the village of New York’. The US Embassy kept urging him to leave, but Mortenson’s friends in Pakistan were protecting him with their lives.

After 9/11 Mortenson became an even stronger advocate for education, now as a way to combat terrorism. He lobbied Congress to get them to keep their promises of rebuilding Afghanistan, telling them, essentially, that they had to give people a reason to choose life over a fighter’s death. Perhaps if they had listened to him, the Taliban wouldn’t be making a comeback there now.

Buy this book on Amazon: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time