Sunday, October 25, 2015

Thames: The Biography


Rating: 4 Stars


It is strange to be a little in love with a river? Maybe obsessed is a little more accurate, but there is something so lovely and melancholy and of course historic about this stretch of water, easily one of the most famous rivers in the world. Perhaps that is my bias, given my love of that little island where she flows. Ah well.

If you read my review of 'Foundation' by the same author earlier in the week, you can imagine by trepidation with beginning this one. Foundation was so terrible, not at all what I have come to know and enjoy from Peter Ackroyd, so I was nervous that he would somehow have screwed this one up too - though how can you really screw up a biography of A RIVER? Luckily, he did not. It was everything I expected and thought it would be.

Ackroyd offers up a whole slew of information, from the origin of the name 'Thames', through to where the Thames becomes the sea. I found many of the chapters highly informative, though naturally cared less for the information regarding the river in Victorian times and beyond. Not the river's fault of course, but I am just less interested in how the Victorian's used the river, because from then on it is not really new information. But to learn about the Iron Age, Bronze Age, etc settlements? That is something else entirely and always among my favorite topics.

My two favorite sections easily were 'Shadows and Depths' and 'The River of Death'. They were broken down further into sections, among the most interesting being 'Legends of the River'. Unfortunately it was just a few short pages and dealt with the paranormal element. Surely some of the more well-known stories could have been elaborated on, if Ackroyd could spend 80 pages talking about those who work on the river. Some of those chapters I skimmed, not going to lie. 'Offerings' was another chapter I found most interesting, as it dealt with the many hundreds of thousands of objects recovered from the Thames, constantly. From weapons and brooches to skulls, the Thames is a keeper of secrets that we will never be able to know. It really is fascinating it macabre sort of way the amount of skulls that have been discovered.

Side note to Ackroyd - don't suppose things about Eleanor of Aquitaine. At one point he mentions a location where Henry II's mistress 'Fair Rosamund' lived until her death, stating, "...It was said that she was eventually poisoned by Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine." While a little revenge in the middle ages would not have been unheard of, let's be realistic. Henry had imprisoned Eleanor for fifteen years, seeing as how she kept inciting their sons into rebellion against him. She was powerful enough in her own right and had little need for Henry at that point in their lives.

But, to end on a positive note, I loved the many maps included - especially in the additional material, 'An Alternative Topography, from Source to Sea' where Ackroyd takes the reader from the beginning of the Thames to the end, stopping at the various villages, castles, and cities along the way. There were many photographs as well to enhance the descriptions throughout and despite that massive amount of pollution, I still want to follow the river myself from start to finish. What a journey that would be.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stonehenge Complete

Stonehenge Complete

Rating: 3 Stars


This one will be short and sweet because there really is not a lot to say about this book, despite its nearly 300-pages and drawing after drawing of what people IMAGINE Stonehenge to look like even when they know that's not ACTUALLY what it looks like (I'm looking at you, Victorian artists...and pretty much every artist ever.)

Based on the title, I thought this was going to be about Stonehenge and the who/what/where/when/why, as far as we can know. Instead it was about how people throughout history have interpreted, damaged, and excavated the site. Some parts were truly DULL. I did find the sections devoted to the Druids interesting, and the dismissing of that myth. It was not until the page 264 (the chapter ends on page 272) that I got what I came for. Kind of a bummer. So, to cheer me up, here are a few pictures of Mom and I at Stonehenge in 2009. Such an amazing visit, to actually be there was just, wow. I could have walked around the structure for hours. All photos taken by/belong to me.




Foundation: The History of England from its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors


Rating: 1.5 Stars


I don't even.

I can't even begin to explain how disappointed I am in this book and Ackroyd's work here. I am actually kind of angry about this book. Normally he is an author I enjoy, having read several of his other titles (The Thames, Chaucer, etc). I so looked forward to this one as this book literally covered almost my entire interest in England.

What makes this disappointment even worse is how promising it even starts out. It begins with a delightful romp through Roman Britain and Boudicca's destructive power (again I say, Eleanor is so lucky I discovered Eleanor of Aquitaine before Boudicca, and the latter is just a nickname). I even enjoyed most of the bits about those nasty Angles and Saxons who were terribly destructive themselves, but eventually manage to evolve into my dear Anglo-Saxons.

When Ackroyd gets specifically to Alfred, king of Wessex, the Angles and the Saxons - Alfred the Great, my first issue comes to light. While it is generally acknowledged that yes, Alfred's grandson Athelstan is the first king of England (England as a whole, not an island of individual kingdoms - Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, etc), Alfred's accomplishments can not be overlooked. I mean, come on, he remains the only king to ever be referred to as 'the Great'. Alfred set up the kingdom to become successful and united; had he not beaten back the Danes, encouraged reading, writing and education in general, or written down the laws of the land, England could have taken a very different course. Let's give him a little more credit here. There would be no England without Alfred.

The next big flag came when the death of Edmund Ironside was completely glossed over. When Edmund and Cnut were basically co-kings, and then within a few months Edmund was dead, it is generally thought that he was murdered so Cnut could rule alone. Edmund's two sons, Edward and Edmund, were spirited out of the country and Cnut's reach. While the son Edmund also died, sometime in exile in Hungary, Edward eventually returned to England, the potential successor of Edward the Confessor. However, within a few days of his landing in England, he was murdered, which set the course for the invasion of the Normans and The Conquest by William I. I have always felt like this is an important piece of the puzzle, as at this point England's history could have been drastically altered and the Anglo-Saxon line (albeit with a strong injection of Hungarian, due to Edward the Exile's decades away from home) might have continued for a long time. No Normans would mean no Plantagenets, which in itself would also have been tragic. But that is another story. It confuses me as to why Ackroyd would not present this information, but perhaps I view it as more important than it actually is.

Speaking of Edward the Confessor now, Ackroyd makes a statement to the effect of Edward choosing his successor as he neared death. The king did not choose his successor though, the next king was chosen and anointed by the Witan, so Edward could not leave his crown to anyone as was stated. The Witan chose Harold, so it would not have mattered if Edward has promised William and/or that Harold might have sworn an oath to uphold William's claim.

As we move through the beginnings of the Norman kings right before the Plantagenet dynasty dawns, there is another slew of missing and/or mis-information. Ackroyd seems to accept almost unequivocally that William II's death was an accident, despite his own brother's actions after his death - and that fact that his hunting companion who 'accidentally' shot him reportedly immediately left the scene. Upon learning his brother had been shot on their hunting outing, Henry immediately rode off to secure the treasury - surely a sign that he might have known something? The mishandling of the Norman kings continues with Stephen. Stephen was nephew to Henry I. Henry I had made his nobles swear an oath to support his daughter Matilda as queen, as his only legitimate son had died when The White Ship sank years earlier. Naturally when Henry I died and Stephen claimed the throne, no one argued because England had never had a queen rule and were not about to start. Ackroyd states that Stephen was crowned in 1135 but that it was not until 1139 that Matilda arrived to "claim her country". That is by and far one of the biggest issues with this book - there is no detail or support as to WHY it took so long for Matilda to land on English shores. She was married to Geoffrey, duke of Anjou. It was not as though she was thousands of miles away, she was across the Channel. Some kind of explanation for her actions would have been welcome, instead of just glossing over it as was done with Ironside's death a few centuries earlier. Ackroyd also fails to mention that Stephen had a son, who was passed over in the line of succession for Matilda's son (Henry II) to bring an end to their brutal civil war.

I was tempted to quit when Eleanor of Aquitaine was almost completely whitewashed from England's history. I mean, seriously. She was important, despite Ackroyd's statement of Eleanor "severing herself from the king". In truth she retreated to her own estates as the king became involved with his beloved mistress Rosamund Clifford, then was imprisoned for fifteen years for inciting their sons into rebellion. More than once. As we continue along with the Plantagenets, Ackroyd seems baffled by the fact that King John and Richard III are often associated. My guess would be they are associated often in peoples' minds because they both murdered children to get their thrones. Ackroyd does address the fact that Arthur (Geoffrey's son), John's nephew, was actively campaigning against him and actually besieging Eleanor at Mirebeau when he was captured. At the time Arthur was fifteen, and seeing as how he was active in the battle I see Ackroyd's claim that he essentially became a prisoner of war so to speak when John captured him. The fact remains however, that Richard I had named Arthur as his heir to the throne, seeing as how their deceased brother Geoffrey was older than John (the spoiled baby of the family), and thus had a better claim. Not to mention John was super shady and cruel and not at all fit to be king. So yeah, killing the rightful kings who happened to also be children is what will always link them, no matter how Ackroyd wants to say this was not true in John's case.

I seriously considered quitting a second time when I realized I had made it all the way to the reign of Henry III (John's son) and had not even caught a swift glimpse of William Marshal, the greatest knight in the history of England. I double checked the index just to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me, but sure enough, he is no where to be found.

I am almost tempted to not even bother with reviewing the chapters relating to Richard III. This book was published in 2011, so it is no fault of Ackroyd's that Richard's remains had not yet been discovered (Phillipa Langley wouldn't be bawling her eyes out on national television for a while yet, upon discovering that he did in fact have a crooked spine). However, the problem is he claims such authority, so sure that Richard's remains had been scattered or thrown in the river. He states this as fact, not the speculation they need to appropriately be described as. For example, on page 416 Ackroyd says, "The king, for example, was not a hunchback. As a result of strenuous martial training one arm and shoulder were overdeveloped, thus leading to a slight unbalance but nothing more." Again, while the author could not have known that within a short time the world would know that, in fact, Richard did have a significant curvature of the spine, he certainly could have addressed this more responsibly.

There are some positives here. Despite everything I have said thus far, though overall I was greatly disappointed, there is still some good. While the longer chapters detail what Ackroyd wants the reader to know with his take on England's history, he also includes shorter chapters throughout that deal with daily life on the island, from food, to religion, to dwellings, etc. At first these chapters annoyed me because it made the book feel a bit disjointed, going back and forth from general to specific history. But the more I read, the more I began to enjoy them. However if I had to choose between more details on the kings and queens, or these little chapters, hands-down I would opt for the former. I believe this is the first of four books. If Ackroyd wanted to present a clearer picture of England by including these chapters, perhaps he should have planned to write five books in the series then to make room for all the facts and information he left out.

I feel like I have made my point here with some of the biggest issues with the book. Basically, Ackroyd has taken some of the most interesting pieces of history and condensed them down into little bite sized morsels for popular consumption. The problem with that is that many of these stories are so complex and deserve to be fleshed out to explore all facets. That is how you really get the big picture, really understand how England became England. This is at times sensational and gossipy, ignoring more plausible theories for wild claims (hello, Edward II). It is as though this is a completely different author than I am used to reading. It is disheartening, because I was looking forward to the second book, which of course focuses on the Tudors, as this one concludes with Henry VII's reign. I can by no means recommend this as the first book for anyone to read who does not already have background knowledge, as I would hate for anyone to read this and think it is all accurate. There is a decent bibliography that I plan exploring further to see how Ackroyd came to some of the conclusions that he did. Perhaps then I will better understand his view, and then be able to move on to the second book with a little more ease.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13


Rating: 5 Stars

Read this one in one afternoon, could not put it down!

First and most importantly, I have always been a little obsessed with the story of Apollo 13. I recently read 'Failure is Not an Option' by Gene Kranz, who you might recall was on duty at Mission Control at the time that Apollo 13 experienced that first explosion that would bring three men in space dangerously close to death. Both books are fantastic and offer great insights into the same story, albeit with very different experiences. This one has been on my to-read list for quite a while, but something was always stopping me from reading it. I wanted to, so badly. However, Apollo 13 has long been one of my favorite movies from childhood and I was terribly afraid that if I were to read Jim Lovell's account of what actually happened, I'd be sorely disappointed to find out Tom Hanks lied to me and the story didn't go as depicted. But eventually my need to know all things Apollo 13-y, I decided to dive right in.

I was NOT disappointed. Not in the least.

Something I enjoyed that I didn't realize I would, is that we are not only given the play-by-play account from The Man himself, Jim Lovell, but were also taken back to his early days in the program - and even further back to see how his love of rockets began. It also looks at his time in college and then finally joining the space program and its early days. He then recounts for the reader the tragic event of Apollo 1 that could easily have derailed the entire program forever.

This is just as much a biography of Lovell as it is a biography of the doomed mission that will always be recognized by the now-famous line, "Houston, we have a problem." As an aside, I always hear the line in my head as "Houston, (dramatic pause) we have a problem" but time and again when I watch the movie I am reminded it is a line that rolls easily off Hanks' tongue as if it were just any other old piece of dialogue and when the alarms are going off, it is just a quick run-together of, "Houston we have a problem" with more of the emphasis on 'problem'. Also, as it is told in the book, the sentence Lovell ACTUALLY said was, "Houston, we've had a problem." Maybe this kind of stuff is only interesting to me, but I can see why the line was altered a little. The past tense doesn't make it sound nearly as dire or desperate. So, there's a little Hollywood meddling for you.

But anyway, as I was saying, I was very happy as I read to find that much of what actually occurred was to be found in the movie. Now naturally there was no way to account for and portray every character, and Mattingly (Gary Sinise) played a much bigger role in the movie it seemed than the book, but the movie really did a great job of telling the story without compromising for Hollywood. As I was reading, scenes from he movie would be playing in my head as I read something I was familiar with and it was nice to see that mirror image. As Swigert got the call to stir the tanks, I found myself shouting at him not to. Sadly, he could not hear me!

One thing that I always enjoyed from the movie was the scene where Tom Hanks finally gets annoyed with the NASA doctor and rips off his electrodes so he is no longer being monitored. This scene was totally anti-climactic in real life and was done with little fanfare, and not much freaking out by those in Houston. In real life, he removed the electrodes and it took a few minutes for Lovell to even be asked about it, to which he simply responded that he no longer had them on. That's that. 

Additionally, on the inside covers Lovell chose to include a diagram detailing the Aquarius and Odyssey and their components, as well as a step by step timeline  of events as they occurred. Appendix A goes into further detail about the Mission timeline, and the remaining two Appendices then detail NASA employees both involved in the Apollo 13 rescue, and all manned Apollo missions before and after.

I highly recommend this one, whether you have an interest in space or not. It is about so much more than that. It is about the struggle to survive against the odds, to trust those who are thousands of miles away, but might as well be millions, to do their job and bring you home. It is told in such a way that the reader does not feel they have to be a rocket man to understand what is going on. Even at its most technical, I was not overwhelmed by the vast amounts of technology and jargon - and a lot of lines said in the movie now make a lot more sense - gimbal lock, anyone?

P.S. If you don't love Tom Hanks, you might be a terrorist.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain


Rating: 3.5 Stars


I keep trying to get beyond James VI/I, but I fear I never will. I picked this one up because I thought maybe if I read about the Stuart family, instead of just Great Britain AFTER James, it might make a difference. Sadly, it does not. James is really the last one who is interesting to me, I think because I kind of feel bad for him because he gets such crap for being 'undignified' for a king - I guess he was allowed to be a tipsy whenever he felt like it, because he felt the being king was a God-given right for him. The difference between James and his son Charles, who was never supposed to be king to begin with, is that while James felt that way he did not shove it in the faces of all his subjects and counselors. Charles and his father could not have been more opposite and unfortunately in the end, it cost Charles both his crown and his life. But don't even get me started on Cromwell. Ugh.

So, the good, the bad, and the ugly...

The Good: I like that a chapter was devoted to each member of the family, starting before the first Stewart king and explaining both the history and legend of the family - the name deriving from the title of Steward, someone in service of the king (The spelling would later be changed to Stuart with Mary, Queen of Scots, who spent the majority of her childhood and young adulthood in France. She used the French spelling, often signing her name Marie Stuart). I also liked that it was divided in such a way that helped me keep track of who was doing what in Scotland, to mirror my knowledge of what was going on in England at the same time. While English kings make their appearances (Hey, Hammer of the Scots!), I appreciate Scotland getting their due turn in the spotlight. If only they could be their independent nation again. But that is another story.

The Bad: Super gossipy sometimes. The author goes so far at one point as to suggest that Maximilian had fallen in love with Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the thrown of England who claimed he was the younger of the twp Princes in the Tower (Richard, Duke of York). Really, he was in love with him? I think not, as nothing else I have ever read about Perkin Warbeck or ol' Max would ever suggest that. Also, not very creative with describing the somewhat unsuccessful reigns of Robert II and Robert III. We get it, they were older when taking the throne, and weren't great leaders. But gosh darn it, they were nice people. That's kind of how it comes across, and that's not very scholarly. Be more objective.

The Ugly: The author's extreme obsession with obscenely long sentences, broken, up, by, several, commas. Not kidding. Example (page 140): "Elizabeth, who disliked bloodshed, except when alarmed, might be, despite everything, well disposed towards her 'cousin and sister', but the men around her were Mary's enemies." SERIOUSLY? So unnecessary.

Interesting quotes:

(page 34) "Later Stewarts might fall into melancholy and depression, but Margaret is the only one recorded as dying of boredom."

(page 85) "It seems to have been a matter of no great moment to him (Henry VIII), and the coffin was left at Sheen in a storeroom. It disappeared when that monastery was dissolved more than twenty years later, and no one knows where the bones of Scotland's Renaissance King found their last resting place." Isn't that depressing?! There is no record of where James IV is buried, and Henry was, no surprise, being a jerk about giving a fellow king and appropriate burial.

It should come as no surprise that my biggest gripes come in regards to dear Mary, who for all her flaws and incredibly poor decision-making, is never given a proper look. She was not this wicked queen, she was just someone who had unfortunately not been prepared for anything but queenship, so she did not know how to be anything else once she was in captivity. The author makes some assumptions that I don't agree with, and seems to be presenting them as fact. One example, on page 114, he talks about Mary's half brother the Earl of Moray being loyal to her especially in the beginning because their interests were similar. That's completely untrue. The only reason he did not turn on her from the start, or even try to gain the throne himself while she was still in France, was because he knew he would not be successful without greater support. He waited until the right time, then showed his true colors. He was never loyal to Mary. Mary, on the other hand, certainly deserves credit for how she handled the situation after her secretary Riccio was murdered. She feigned conciliation with the murderers to continue to keep the government going and it served her well for the time being, until Darnley's untimely but not unwelcome end. I can though, appreciate the author's conclusion that Mary was not an active conspirator in Darnley's death. I think it is pretty certain that Bothwell murdered him, with help, and then forced Mary into marriage after raping her - something she herself says happened. I don't think she felt she had any choice at that point, as in the past he had always bee on her side. Unfortunately for Mary, it was because he too wanted power, hated Moray, and saw Mary as a way to accomplish both seizing control and getting rid of Moray. Luckily, Bothwell ended up dying in Denmark after being locked away and going mad. Good riddance. And thus, unfortunately again, his actions had long-reaching consequences for Mary.

I won't touch any more on what I think of Elizabeth and her false imprisonment of a fellow sovereign. Anyone who has read any other review I have written about that childish, manipulative shrew knows what I think of her and her rubbish about not meaning to sign the death warrant. Of course she meant to. Ugh.

Anyway. So, certainly recommended for anyone interested in the time period or the family. You'll have to wade through some nonsense, and if you have a background already related to the Stuarts there will be some facts you'll call bluff on. But it is an easy read, and an interesting one -  for me just through James anyway!