Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brief Hiatus

Just a quick note to say I will be taking a break from book reviews and blogging for a couple weeks, as my little one is having surgery this coming Thursday. Check out previous reviews and podcasts for those you might have missed!

Happy Reading,

Monday, June 27, 2016

Monday Meme!

After I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for the first time, I dreamed of nothing but living in a museum or a bookstore or a library for ages. What a lovely dream it is.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era


Rating: 3.5 Stars

While this book is not without its flaws, I feel like other readers and I must have read a completely different book. I found it to be a good read about a highly important historical figure who sometimes is forgotten - though I am not sure how. it so happened that a publisher had offered me a copy of another book about John of Gaunt so I read them around the same time and recommend both, as each has kind of a different focus. While they are both at the core biographies of John of Gaunt, the subtitle is important for this one. it is much more about the time period and the great changes taking place, as it is about the Duke of Lancaster.

Norman Cantor is still a well-known medieval author, despite him having passed away in 2004. I enjoy his works, have read some and have many more on my to-read list. So, I know that he has the knowledge necessary to write about his topics. Even well-versed authors are not completely immune to suppositions, and there were quite a few, but I couldn't not keep reading the book. One reason for all those suppositions is that, despite the fact that we have pages and pages, roughly 500 or so, of Gaunt's business letters and documents,there is not one single personal letter of his that has survived to come down to us through the centuries. The author also makes the point on page 81 that, "There is no evidence from late medieval England that aristocrats wrote personal letters at that time." It doesn't mean they didn't, it just means that so far none have been found. Such a shame that if they did so, we will never have these personal letters to read, to better understand the people we admire or disdain from afar (Believe me - what I would not give for an authentic cache of letters to be discovered somewhere in England or Aquitaine penned by Eleanor herself, detailing events in her life that took her from Louis' side as Queen Consort of France to Henry's side as Queen Consort of England!)

FYI: I am almost embarrassed to admit this, and maybe it is just because my head is so full of Henrys and Edwards and such, that I can't keep all the family trees straight (especially when they overlap multiple times), but I don't know how it never occurred to me before that Prince Henry the Navigator was Gaunt's grandson. I don't know why it took so long for me to make the connection. Yikes.

The book is not organized in a way that some readers might enjoy. Instead of being a straight biography of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, his life story is told by topic. So, yes the book jumps around in time quite a bit, but you also have to keep in mind that subtitle I mentioned. It is about Lancaster, but also about the world he grew up in and the changes that took place to begin ushering in the modern world. Topics include the broad 'Old Europe', then the great families of the age, women, warriors, peasants, politics, and eve a whole chapter revolving around Chaucer. I liked the organization, because one chapter you get a sense of general life in that time, as well as how Lancaster fit into the world and how the various topics impacted him, and he them. That background information is especially important for those who have little knowledge to begin with, while still focusing on the subject of the book.

As I said before, the book is not without its flaws. There is a lot of supposition throughout. It is his final book published before his death (both occurred in 2004; a book about Alexander the Great was published posthumously in 2005) and I still found it to be adequate. I don't know that I would call it his best book, but Cantor had the ability to make even uninteresting aspects of the Middle Ages engaging. There is one quote though that I had a good chuckle at, not because it was ha-ha funny, but because it was just kind of a silly statement: "Undoubtedly Gaunt would have loved to wear the crown. But that was outside the realm of possibility. Above all Gaunt was a Plantagenet who wanted to maintain the dignity of the bloodlines of his family" (page 197). I mean, I seriously almost snorted at that line. While it is likely true that the Duke of Lancaster secretly coveted the throne of England (and really, he was already the richest man in the country and wielded about the same control), he would never have really overthrown his nephew Richard II, son of his elder brother, Edward the Black Prince. In all honesty he probably should have, because Richard II was not the greatest of kings, but that part might be true. The second part is what had me chortling, the 'dignity' of the Plantagenets. Just look at what Eleanor and Henry II's sons did in the many years their father was on the throne! They rebelled against him how many times (twice - guided by Eleanor herself) in order to get more power. Richard practically hounded his father to death for the crown after Henry the Young King (older brother) and Geoffrey (younger brother) both died, and John was easily one of the worst kings in the history of England.

Even with that quote, I can still say that I would recommend this volume. Cantor has written numerous texts about the Middle Ages and knows what he is talking about. It is fairly short, the hardcover volume I discovered at half-Price Books is only 241 pages. Give it a go and see what you think!

Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library


Rating: 3.5 Stars

I received this book (an embarrassing amount of months ago) as an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I know what you're thinking - how on earth could a book about LIBRARIES, one of Sarah's most FAVORITE PLACES IN THE WORLD, take her almost 8 months to read??!! I've asked myself that same question many times over, both as I was reading and after I finished the book. There is no good reason why this book took me so long, and I really can't explain it. Perhaps it is because the beginning was kind of dry? I don't know; once I got to the 1900s, I breezed through the book and could not put it down. I can't say for sure what it was that took me so long, but there's something, and for that reason - whatever it may be - I can only give 3.5 stars. It's not a terrible book, it's a very good book and if you love libraries you MUST read it. it just took me a while, and I LOVE libraries. I will forever be an advocate for libraries, yelling down those who claim that now that we can get eBooks, we don't need the real thing. If you truly believe that, or that books don't need to be physical, I honestly do not know if we can be friends. I prefer the real thing, but have my Kindle which is just more practical when out and about. But libraries are such a wonderful resource for the communities they serve and provide a plethora of services that are vital. If we do not provide adequate funding for our libraries, I truly believe society will collapse. I don't even care if you think I am crazy for that statement. it's true. Libraries are mandatory for an educated, well-functioning society. Okay, so I guess maybe the US is not exactly 'educated' or 'well-functioning' right now, but I have faith we can get back there again.

Rant over. On to the book. 

The author clearly knows what he is talking about. The research is all here, he uses multiple libraries as examples when discussing the evolution of what we have come to know as a public library, but there really are some sections that are not written in a very engaging way. As I mentioned earlier, I can't quite put my finger on what made some parts this way. This is, after all, a history of a vital cultural institution that has shaped our country in many ways. Still, I appreciate the amount of work that went into writing this text. As I read it on my Kindle, I made a note that 81% of the book was the actual text and the last 19% was devoted to notes and bibliography. That's not a small amount, that's quite a bit of research and numerous resources.

I really loved all the facts about early libraries and the system of checking out books. There's something so quaint about the idea that you gave a librarian your slip with the name(s) of the book(s) you wanted, and they would retrieve them for you. Then, your name would be copied down in a giant ledger with the titles you'd selected. What simple days. And time-consuming! I can't imagine anyone today in our impatient world suffering through any of that for a book and it is probably for the best that we can now get our books ourselves and use self-checkout together - though I adore my librarians at my favorite branch and will always opt for the check out counter over the automated service. In early days also, it amuses me that patrons could only check out 2 to 5 books at a time. When I was pregnant with my daughter over the summer, I would walk out with the max limit of 40 books at a time and it never felt like enough!

I also found the crusade against fiction earlier in the life of the public library to be highly amusing. I never really knew that fiction was considered to be such garbage. Librarians went to great lengths to make sure people did not read ONLY fiction and in some libraries if you were checking out a fiction book, you also had to check out a nonfiction one as well. I myself am partial to nonfiction, so this would not have bothered me much, but I certainly know quite a few people who would have had quite a difficult time getting books had they lived in that period. I also had no idea that Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Hardy Boys were considered unsuitable for children and librarians recommended children NOT read them. I can't imagine a childhood without Nancy Drew! I read those books over and over in elementary school and loved them. I was never as into the Hardy Boys, though I read a few, but Nancy was my girl and I fondly recall wanting to be friends with her and solve mysteries.

There are a lot of other interesting and sometimes little-known facts about the growth and change of libraries over the decades. For example, during WWII when there was a major lack of gas and tires, Baltimore kept its bookmobiles going around the city by purchasing a horse-drawn wagon to be able to bring books to people. This little fact made me love libraries even more.

I was also highly amused by a rule imposed by Chicago's public libraries in the '60s: "In 1969 the Chicago Public Library forbade patrons from exposing their toes while reading. 'Can't have toes all over the place,' one official commented. 'Feet disturb some people,' said another." I really cracked up over that one because while yes, I think feet are weird and kind of gross (I mean really, they sweat inside socks and shoes all day, yuck), silly rules like this are obviously targets for rule-breakers. My flip-flops and I certainly would not have been welcome in those libraries in the 1960s!

Unfortunately, it also seems that through the years libraries have also attracted what I can only describe as total a-holes who ruin the experience for everyone else. The author tells of teenagers in the 1950s harassing patrons, riding their bikes through the reading rooms and throwing bricks and PIPE BOMBS through the front doors. Who are these idiots and where are their parents?! Guess the 50s weren't as wonderful as everyone likes to remember. Similar things happened in the late 60s in New York, and some branches even had to close because of the gangs of a-holes terrorizing the libraries. The most disturbing story to me though came from librarians in Minneapolis (though no doubt this occurred in libraries across the country and is not just local to my home city). In the early 2000s with the rise of the Internet, librarians reported male computer users looking at porn in the library and several were masturbating. IN PUBLIC. Seriously? I don't even. Who are these idiots trying to ruin it for everyone else?!

My main issue with the book and another reason I could not rate it above a 3-3.5, relates to the following. I really hope it was not the author's intention to compare gay people and pedophiles but that is how it came across to me and as an ardent supporter of the LGBTQ community, I can not abide this. However, if my interpretation is incorrect, I'd be all the more happy for it. At 73% the author discusses the San Francisco Public Library "affirming its right" to display a rainbow flag over one of its branches, but then goes on to say that the community showed its limit of tolerance when the citizens protested when the library was going to allow NAMBLA to rent a library meeting room. Now, if you do not know what NAMBLA is, don't Google it at work, because that could land you in some hot water for being A PEDOPHILE and disgusting human being. Now, due to my long-running obsession with a certain yummy former NYPD SVU detective (Oh Elliott Stabler, I love you still, even though you have not been on the show in years - and not ironically, it has been the same amount of years since I have watched the show), I know that NAMBLA stands for the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Gross, right? Sorry, but no, there is no way you will ever convince anyone that this is 'normal' or justify your crimes of raping children. There's no comparison, it is not even close. If the intent is what I originally thought, I am quite bothered. If I misinterpreted, I apologize. There is so much more I want to say about this topic, but then this post will turn into a political rant and not a book review and I am trying very hard to keep this blog and my Twitter as politics-free as possible. it creeps in sometimes, I just can't help it.

Ever since these fancy schmancy new devices called eReaders came into being - and even before - people, especially those who have more authority than they should, have questioned the relevance of libraries in our communities anymore. To those people who would suggest that we no longer need them, I challenge them to step foot in a library, small town or large city alike, and see the wide variety of services offered to the community. The library is not just about checking out books (though that is MY favorite part). There are so many small groups offered by libraries throughout the year, from reading times for little ones, teen lock-ins, adults doing geneology research. It is a place where a homeless person might come to use the computers to look for a job or other assistance they desperately need - or often yes, to sit in the warmth on a wintry day. The Internet can never replace our librarians, nor should we even try. And as for the "Many authorities (who) still have questions about the value of public libraries," (75%), be quiet. Yes we need them and we always will.

The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure


Rating: 5 Stars

I don't even know where to begin with this one. when they say complete, they mean complete. Every last inch of this book is crammed with texts, photos, sidebars, captions, diagrams; you name it, this book has it. It is almost overwhelming, to be honest. There is so much information and detail, I could see it scaring off someone who only has a passing interest. On the other hand, it is a great place to start if you are just learning of Tutankhamun, beyond him being 'the boy king who died mysteriously'.

As I said, there is an insane amount of detail here. The book starts by laying the scene, giving a history of Tut, his father, the religious upheaval, and such. Then  it moves toward who Howard Carter was and his work prior to discovering Tut's tomb. The author then moves step by step, from the discovery, to the death of Lord Carnarvon, the politics of the time that impacted their work, then eventually moves room by room within the tomb and details the discoveries in each space. After that, the author also provides ample information about the kinds of objects discovered that accompanied Tut to the Afterlife: ritual couches, games, chariots and necessary equipment, weaponry, wine jars, pottery, tools, lamps, and so on. There are even charts describing specific statues and figures. I don't think I can stress enough how much detail is here. I feel like I've said it a lot, but it's so very true.

I kind of have this love/hate relationship with the field of archaeology - particularly these, who explore these tombs and remove the treasures to put on display for the world. These are tombs, final resting places of real people who lived and died thousands of years before us. But they still deserve respect and the opportunity to rest in peace. I love seeing the treasures but this is still a kind of state-sanctioned grave robbing. In our never-ending quest to know everything about these people, we've raided their tombs and robbed their graves of anything of value. Sure, it is now done in the name of academia, but it truthfully is no different then those who did this thousands of years ago when the tombs were new and easier to access of the burial.

So, rant aside, I still enjoyed this book for the wealth of knowledge it provides. I do wish there were more color photos. I also found Carter's notes an interesting read and the author uses excerpts of them throughout the book. He took copious amounts of notes, recording what they saw from room to room and these insights are intriguing. The author also includes drawings that Carter's made, though his notes were never published as a volume. It is interesting to see from his perspective as the discoverer, though his methods seem terrible today. The treatment of the mummies never ceases to infuriate me. The fact that Tut (and who knows how many others, by other archaeologists throughout the centuries) had to be dismembered to be removed from his sarcophagus make me so angry. Archaeology is an important field, but so destructive at the same time. It is a field that has to destroy in order to discover, and this is uncomfortable for me.

Side note: the photos of the mummified remains of what are thought to be Tut's two little daughters are absolutely heart-breaking. They're just so tiny (duh).

Overall, this is about as complete a book as you can find about the tomb of King Tut. While there is some history of his reign and the suspicions surrounding his death, as well as information about his father before him, it is more focus on the tomb itself and the treasures it held and what they tell us about burials of the time. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Monday Meme!


One of the truest statements I have ever read. It's not hoarding, it's collecting!

Do you have an obscenely large collection of books? Or are you like me, and frequent the library due to lack of space and money?

Friday, June 17, 2016

Esther the Wonder Pig: Changing the World One Heart at a Time


Rating: 4 Stars

What a charming little story! I was vaguely familiar with the exploits of Esther but never knew her story from start to now. My friend Chris sent my daughter and I this book a few days ago and I read it in just a few hours. This is for a couple reasons - the first being that it is an easy read due to its conversational tone. The second being, who doesn't love piggies? Okay, so clean ones that don't have mud and muck all over them, at least.

The writing is not anything academic of course, but it is a sweet story about how the lives of this couple changed when little Esther came stealthily into their lives. Not bad for a piggy that would grow up to be over 600 pounds. Steve is initially conned into caring for Esther when a high school friend says she is a mini pig and won't grow much bigger than 75 pounds. The high school friend is also a big fat liar and Esther is in fact a commercial pig who will become a giant. Luckily, Steve finds this out AFTER he springs the news on his boyfriend that they are now the proud parents of a little piggy, and from there chaos and hilarity ensues.

I can't even imagine changing my life in the dramatic way these guys did, for a living being that is not human. I mean, I completely changed my life when I was pregnant and had my baby, but that was for another human being. For a pig? Never occurred to meet. But then you read the book (or follow on Facebook and know already), and you get it. You might also not really be willing to go to the lengths these two men do to keep their girl, but you definitely understand why and can respect them for it.

AND not only do they throw caution to the wind and go out on a limb to make an offer on a farm they can't really afford, they get the farm and turn it into an animal sanctuary to save other animals who might otherwise have been in a less fortunate situation then Esther. While giving up meat cold-turkey.

You, gentlemen, are stronger than I.

The only thing that really bugged me was Steve's constant parentheses. We get it, you're the tad more high-string one. It's cool.

Definitely recommend this if you are in need of a little pick-me-up in a world that looks awfully bleak right now.

Quick Recommendation!

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge is on sale right now through Amazon for $1.99 - saw it on BookBub this morning. It is the story of William Marshel and his remarkable story serving five kings of England - Henry the Young King, Henry II, Richard II, John, and Henry III. One of my favorite books of the period, and easily one of the best books I have read in the last two years. Such a great read, go get it!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Monday Meme!

I work my brain out!:

Some of the books I read are 900+ page tomes in hardcover, so that counts as a workout, right?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Ghostly Encounters: Confessions of a Paranormal Investigator


Rating: 4 Stars

Disclaimer: I believe in ghosts. I've lived in an apartment that I believe was haunted (though we always referred to the spirit as Ghost Baby due to its toddler-like voice and actions, so haunting is not really the right word. Maybe the right phrase is 'other-worldly guest'). I've had experiences both at the Villisca Axe Murder House (real name) in Villisca, Iowa and The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado that have led me to believe that ghosts do exist. This review will reflect that belief. If you have a different opinion, I am cool with that. What I am not cool with is belittling or rude comments because our beliefs are different.

I've debated for a long time between a three star or a four star rating. There are so many positives going for this book and it is easily one of the best books about paranormal investigations that I've read yet. The negative though is that the author at several times pointed out the flaws and problems with methods of other teams - both that he worked with, and teams as seen on television (think Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters). I view this as a problem in general with investigation books, not just this one alone. I get it, Ghost Adventures is especially ridiculous. No serious investigator watches these doofuses and thinks, "Wow, these guys are legit!" Mostly my issue is with Zak and how he thinks every ghost is cussing at him and wants to kill him, or follows him home and haunts him. But the main issue I have with this book and others of the genre is a lot of time, pointing out said flaws ends up coming across as being judgmental or even condescending in past instances I've read. I do understand the need to clear up misconceptions that reality shows might present, but too much of it comes across in a negative manner.

As I previously mentioned, so far this is one of the best books on paranormal investigations that I have read. The author included several pieces of possible evidence captured on different investigations - both photographs and video/audio evidence which can be easily accessed (I read this on my Kindle). My only complaint is that I would like to see the photos in color and as this was on my Kindle, they were in black and white. I also very much appreciated the author limited himself in sharing his personal experiences as they occurred at each site. He addressed this directly, stating that he did not want color experiences for anyone else or bias them in any way by offering explanation of his own tat had no video/audio/photo back-up. This is highly important to me, as whether we want to believe it or not, we are very impressionable in situations like this and it would be easy for a future explorer to go to one of these locations, think about the author's experience, and then ONLY look for those same types of experiences too.

One of the strongest aspects of this book involves the recounting of the history of each place that the author investigated. He not only covers the history of each in regards to reports of paranormal activity, but general history as well. Anyone who has read a few of my reviews knows how important contemporary resources are to me - diaries, newspaper accounts, eyewitness testimonies, etc. I feel they add credibility to any non-fiction text and this book is no different. Not only has the author helped to build up the credibility of paranormal investigation as a legitimate field, but he gives a lot of context to readers who may be unfamiliar with the sites he explores (I personally was pleased to read about numerous sites I was already familiar with - the Villisca house, Gettysburg, and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, just to name a few). I especially loved the history of Trans-Allegheny, including a list of numerous reasons as to why someone could have been admitted to the asylum in its heyday. Most of the reasons are just so silly now, people were really committed for reasons that most certainly did not make them insane - laziness, NOVEL READING, or greed. here's the list:

(This photograph was taken from Snopes. The article is here to further read about what it actually means)

Another strength the book has going for it is the section dedicated to the technology necessary to conduct an investigation. Naturally there are pros and cons for each, which the author addresses. He indicates his own personal preferences, as well as cost-effectiveness - some of the pieces of equipment are pretty expensive, and are not necessarily proven to work the way their creators say they will.

I was surprised to see Villisca in the book, it is a small town that not many have heard of (until the guys from Ghost Adventures went and made a mockery of it all, as usual). A friend and I had driven to Villisca a few years ago to visit the house where 8 people - 6 children - were murdered in the middle of the night with an ax in 1912. All 8 were found bludgeoned to death in the beds where they slept - Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul, and two of Katherine's friends who spent the night, Lea and Ina Stillinger. Even during the day, it was clear there is paranormal activity going on here. Like the author, I will not share specifics of my personal experiences here so as not to color anyone else's experience, but the attic and the landing where Josiah and Sarah slept (and you can still see the ax marks in the slanted ceiling) are places of interest.

As an aside, reading about the way some people behave at Gettysburg today is appalling. There is zero respect for the dead and many people seem to have forgotten the meaning or the fact that it is a CEMETERY where the bloodiest battle of the Civil War took place. But no, let's go for a round of frisbee golf and take our dogs to play. because, that makes sense. Morons.

After the text of the book, the first Appendix lists several locations around the country where paranormal activity has been reported. They are listed alphabetically, and give a brief backstory of each. I was happy to see the Stanley listed here. Estes Park, Colorado is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and the Stanley did not disappoint when I was there a few years ago. This is another place I would definitely say is haunted - this is based both on my personal experiences that occurred there and photographs taken while exploring as well. But it felt very different from Villisca. Villisca felt sad, and deeply depressing - as it should anyway even if it did not have paranormal activity occurring. The Stanley, on the other hand, feels anything but. It was a peaceful (except for the loud footsteps on wooden floors at all hours of the night - strange, since all the floors are now carpeted and have not been made of wood for decades) and happy.

The second Appendix is another helpful resource, especially for those interested in joining the field of paranormal investigation. It includes, alphabetically by state, lists of different groups one could contact - I assume either with an investigation need or for possible membership.

Overall, there are far more positives than negatives with this one (though the negative is important to address - it is a fine line between pointing out the absurdity of some of the ghost adventuring reality shows and sounding condescending. Most books end up doing both and the latter will alienate people who might truly be interested in investigating, not just thrill-seeking). I found it to be well-written and well-researched and I feel like if more books about the paranormal were written in this vein, the field might one day be regarded more legitimately.

Giveaway Time Again!

This week I passed the 500 follower mark on Twitter, so I am celebrating that fact by giving away a $20 gift card to Barnes and Noble. There are two ways you can enter:

1. Facebook - www.facebook.com/AllTheBookBlogNamesAreTaken - The giveaway post is pinned to the top of the page feed.

  1. Like the page
  2. Like the pinned giveaway post
  3. Comment on the pinned giveaway post with your favorite genre
  4. Share the pinned giveaway post
2. Twitter - www.Twitter.com/SarahsBookNook - The giveaway Tweet is pinned to the top of my page.
  1. Follow me
  2. Like the pinned Tweet
  3. Retweet the pinned Tweet
The giveaway will run until Tuesday evening, June 14th, 2016 at 10 PM central time. This giveaway is for US residents only.

Who doesn't love gift cards to bookstores, what are you waiting for?!

Good luck!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Monday Meme

Inherit, they shall.

I am collecting every non-fiction book about Eleanor of Aquitaine that I can find for my daughter. Here's hoping she likes history!

What books do you want to pass on to your children? Or, which books do you at least hope they love as much as you do?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

1215: The Year of Magna Carta


Rating: 4 Stars

I really enjoyed Danzinger's book 'The Year 1000', so I had high hopes for this one for a number of reasons. First, I like his writing style. it is conversation without being condescending about academics. Secondly, I was hopeful (and correct) that Eleanor of Aquitaine would play a role in the text. Some historians are dismissive of her, in saying she was not that important. I beg to differ - how else would Richard have been freed from Leopold, how might John have further ruined England had he usurped the throne with Richard locked up? She was badass and I dare anyone to say it to my face that she wasn't. (I mean, it's not like I would punch you if you said it to my face, but be prepared for a verbal tongue-lashing. And a zillion facts for why you are WRONG.) Anyway, also bonus points for references to William Marshal, arguably the greatest knight to ever live. Without he and Eleanor working behind the scenes (and sometimes quite visibly) it can be alarming to think of what other havoc John might have wrecked.

But, on to the book.

I believe that some readers did not read the title fully. I know this happens, as it is something I do all the time. I focus on a word or two in the title and then get all upset when the book is not what I think it is going to be or supposed to be. The book is not about Magna Carta. it is about the year 1215 (and surrounding years, actually), the year this fascinating and incredibly important document was signed. Now, realistically, Magna Carta was not important in the way we think it should have been - John certainly did not take it seriously and almost immediately broke the agreement. It was rewritten and reissued several times, but did not fully function as it was intended, mostly because John was a weasel. I guess it is not entirely his fault, he was the baby of the bunch, called 'Lackland' because he had no inheritance to speak of while his older brothers lived, and was forever in the shadow of Richard. Still, he was a weasel for whatever reason and that comes through in the text.

Unlike Danzinger's previous book I mentioned that was broken up by each month in the year 1000, this one is divided into topics pertaining to the year 1215 and the early part of the century, really. We are introduced (or revisiting, if you are like me and already familiar with the era). The author presents information about life in towns, the countryside, schools, the Church, tournaments and battles, and so on. There is also a chapter devoted entirely to John, then the charter itself 'The Great Charter'. Something I found to be interesting was that at the beginning of each chapter, a quote relating to said topic was pulled directly from Magna Carta. It's a good way to get an understanding and become familiar with the document before actually diving in to the bulk of it.

As always, I am big fan of authors using contemporary resources. This book makes use of many of such documents, besides Magna Carta. There are clerk records, letters, diaries, purchase records, and more. I love this, because I love reading original material in the language of the time. It is not always easy, and sometimes I might have to read it a couple times to understand, but it is worth the time. Then, of course, the author includes the whole of Magna Carta, every single last clause that makes up this world-changing document.

As an aside, I was really happy to see the full text included here. In 2009, my mom and I visited Scotland and (very briefly) England (mostly just to see Wicked on Mom's birthday, the bulk of the trip was Scotland because it was Mom's dream vacation). For the one full day we were in England, I had booked a day trip that included visits to Bath, Stonehenge, and Salisbury Cathedral. But when we arrived for check-in, we were informed Salisbury had been closed for the day and we would not be able to see Magna Carta. I was so bummed. Windsor Castle was substituted, which would have been great - Henry VIII is buried there! Except...Queen Elizabeth II was knighting people that day so many parts of Windsor were also closed. It was some bad luck, but the perfect excuse to go back. And believe me, that trip will definitely happen.

Overall, I highly recommend this little volume. it is a small book, and a short book, but one well worth the read.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

All the Presidents' Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses, How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America


Rating: 5 Stars

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

This is a wonderful volume about a subject I am not typically interested in. I am what you might call an 'indoor girl'. I do not like being outside for long periods of time, particularly in a garden-type environment (swimming pools are an entirely different story). I have killed every plant I have ever tried to keep alive, and in general I don't really care about flowers, plants, or anything that has to do with gardening.

It might seem strange then that I requested this book, but I love history and learning about the White House in particular, along with the First Families. So I took a chance on this one and thank goodness the publisher was willing to take a chance on me!

This really is a fantastic book. Of course the focus is on the gardens changing through the presidencies, but we also get a lot of information that had to do with gardening in general, and with the First Families as well.

The author used tons of contemporary sources. There were blueprints, garden plans, photographs, advertisements, and so on. The sources really added so much to the book, giving us a glimpse of what life was like at the time, and were well-placed. I only wish I had had this in a physical copy instead of reading it on my laptop. The page breaks split some of the ads and such, but overall they were still very useful. At the end there was as complete as possible a list of all the gardeners who ever worked with the White House gardens, as well as an incredibly exhaustive list of everything ever planted on the White House grounds. I could not believe all the types of trees and flowers - again, with my limited background knowledge, I had no idea there were really so many kinds. Generally I just think, okay, flowers. Logically I KNOW there are many kinds, it is just not something I think about often.

One specific contemporary source I found especially interesting was the documents detailing the produce that was available at the time during Jefferson's presidency. It showed costs and what was in stock. So many times throughout the book we see lists like this and we know the costs of flowers, who they were purchased from, and so on. Not only that, but often photos of the flowers accompanied these documents.

Fun Fact: The Shakers invented the paper seed packets. They were the first group of people to start raising and collecting seeds to clean them and start the seed industry. "While Johnny Appleseed gets all the press, the Shakers had a bigger impact on food gardening" (page 68).

Fun Fact: The White House was not officially called so until Theodore Roosevelt became president. It was called this sometimes after the rebuilding post-War of 1812 but it was not official until Teddy.

This was a fun, interesting read and I highly recommend it - green thumb or not!

The Astors


Rating: 3.5 Stars

I really am kind of obsessed with the Astors. And the Vanderbilts. And the Rockefellers. And all the other families who made their fortunes primarily in the Gilded Age, and/or are who we think of as having the robber baron patriarchs.

I debated between three and four stars, mainly because there were some typos in the text. It was nothing major, sometimes a word misspelled due to an incorrect letter, or a number missing from a year, but it occurred often enough to be noticeable and for me to take note as I was reading. I ultimately decided on 3.5 - not because it was in the middle of the two, but because at one point the author referred to Elsa Maxwell as "the fat, ugly, energetic party organizer of the interwar era" (72%). Not cool. Not cool at all. I dig Elsa Maxwell and her story is equally as interesting. So, 3.5 stars.

This text is dated, having been written in 1979. This might be the biggest issue I really have with it, since Brooke Astor passed away a few years ago now. The book was republished recently by Endeavour Press, but the author was killed in a car accident in 1983 (and already in her 70s by that time), so the likelihood of it being updated is probably slim. But it would nice to have additional information about those Astors who have descended from such interesting founders.

Really, that is almost how they seem to be, as characters, despite the fact that they were actual real people who lived and worked and died, making and keeping a vast family fortune. From the very first John Jacob Astor and down the line, I feel like the book was generally very well-researched and the author provided me with so much information about the family that I did not previously know. There are more books about the Astors on my to-read list that I will be getting to shortly, but I feel like this was a great introduction and overview of the family as a whole.

A place where the author excelled was in the use of contemporary sources. The book is full of newspaper articles, book excerpts, letters, and so on from the time - both of members of the Astor family and those on the outside. I always appreciate when a text makes use of contemporary sources and quote them directly. You really get a sense for the time and the people that way and this book is no exception. One kind of source that I felt was missing though was photographs. It is hard enough to keep track of all the John Jacob Astors, let alone all the brothers and nephews and such, photographs would have been nice - as would a family tree. However, with this being a Kindle edition that might not have been as helpful anyway, as it is much harder to go back and forth between pages this way vs. reading a physical copy.

Fun fact I learned about Vincent Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor IV who perished with the Titanic: "He hated the school so much that he tried to burn it down, but apparently even this heinous offense was overlooked if one was an Astor" (62%).

As I mentioned in a recent review of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue about the life and death of heiress Huguette Clark, it bums me out that all these mansions are gone now. All these ridiculous palaces built by these outrageous fortunes must have just been a sight, and the photographs just do not do them justice. Same with the original Waldorf-Astoria, and other buildings of the era. They would be so amazing to see now, but of course progress means they're all gone now.

Overall, I would recommend this one to anyone interested in both the family and the eras where they lived and thrived. The text is not without some issues, but this is still a worthwhile read.