So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Made in the Middle Ages. Christine Price

Made in the Middle Ages is a 45 year old work for teens and general audiences about Medieval craftsmen and their work. At a time when seeing the artifacts of this era meant going to a few widely-scattered and specialized museums, Christine Price used her artistic abilities and historic knowledge to create a wonderful illustrated introduction to this topic.

The book is divided into two sections: "Things Made for the Castle," and "Things Made for the Church." These are subdivided into sixteen chapers on Armor and Weapons, Cloth and Clothing, Jewels and Enamels, Sports and Pastimes, Tapestries, Tableware, Books for the Castle, Diptychs and Reliquaries, Books for the Church, Embroidery, Wood Carving, Paintings, Carvings in Alabaster, Carvings in Ivory, and Treasures of the Church. Each page is amply illustrated with pen and ink drawings of artifacts of the time that now reside in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bodelian Library, and other places. The end papers are outline maps of Europe that show the places mentioned in the book.

Well-organized and well-presented, this little book provides much detail about life and crafts in Europe between the years 1000 and 1500. Today photographs of many of these items are on the Internet, but Price's presentation gives them an order and logic unique to this work.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Forever Amber. Kathleen Winsor

Forever Amber covers 10 years in the life of Amber St. Clare in Restoration England beginning in 1660 when she was 16 and ran away from the farm to go to London. The monarchy had just been restored, and the Royalists were returning to England.

Bruce Carlton is a returning lord whose family had lost everything during the Cromwell period. He is on his way to London when he stops in Amber's village for the night. For Amber, it is love at first sight and she begs him to take her with him. However, to Bruce, Amber is "a woman any man would like to have for a mistress, but not for a wife." She is beautiful, desirable, and sensual. Yet she is also vain, unscrupulous, wanton, and ambitious.

Sleeping her way to fame and fortune, Amber is not a likable heroine. As a character, her devotion to Bruce is her saving grace. Yet she is a woman who loves too much an unattainable man. So even her undying love doesn't redeem her.

What finally makes this novel work is the history. Kathleen Winsor does an excellent job of portraying the turbulence of Restoration England. She superbly portrays the intrigues of King Charles II and his court, the upheaval of British life caused by reformation and restoration, and London consumed first by plague and then by the Great Fire.

The prior Puritanical period was swept aside by a royal court of relaxed sexual morals into which Amber fit particularly well. Forever Amber, while banned in Boston when it was published in the 1940s for its portrayal of the loose morals of the court, actually contains no descriptions of sexual intimacy. Dozens of times the author makes it clear that something happened without ever describing it. Depending on the reader this can be a strength or a weakness of the book.

The Wandering Jew. Eugene Sue

Written in 1845, just 3 years before revolutions swept Europe, this 887 page five volume novel is a classic piece of French socialist writing that has been swept under the rug of history. It was originally serialized in a French newspaper and created quite a stir with its strong positions on women's rights, worker communes, and anticlericalism.

I originally started to read this book because I was interested in the legend of the wandering Jew. This is a mythical person cursed to live forever and wander without rest because he refused Jesus a place to rest as he carried his cross to Calvary. Although the wandering Jew and his equally long-lived sister Herodias, who gained her longevity because of her involvement in the death of John the Baptist, make occasional appearances in the book, the story is really about the heirs of Herodias, seven members of the Rennepont family. So if you are seeking a work on the legend of the wandering Jew, I recommend you do not read this book.

The Rennepont family lost their position and most of their wealth during the French persecution of the Protestants. What was left of the Rennepont fortune was entrusted for 150 years to a Jewish banker and his heirs who were loyal to the family. Over the course of time through wise investments, the small inheritance was carefully nurtured into a fortune.

Any surviving members of the Rennepont family were directed to meet at a certain address in Paris in 1832 by bronze medallions cast in 1682 that have been passed down from generation to generation. Those present on the given date will divide the inheritance. This book is the story of the seven members of the family left at this time. They are Jacques Rennepont, a Parisian workman who favors drinking and the wild life; Francis Hardy, an enlightened industrialist who has built communal living quarters for his happy workers; Rose and Blanche Simon, twin teens who travel with an old soldier to Paris from Siberia where their mother has just died; Adrienne de Cardoville, a beautiful and independent-minded woman of means; Abbe Gabriel, an orphan who has been raised by the Jesuits, and Djalma, an Indian prince.

Two Jesuits and a female accomplice have devised a plan to keep the Renneponts from their inheritance and to claim it for the The Society of Jesus. They hope to obtain the fortune to secure their futures and pay for the rehabilitation of the Order.

The story moves from one cliffhanger to another throughout the book as the struggle between the family and the two Jesuits unfolds. The Perils of Pauline and A Series of Unfortunate Events come to mind as contemporary stories with similar plot devices. This structure is a byproduct of the newspaper serialization. However, Eugene Sue is a master of his craft and he develops the various subplots with great skill. Characters are well-developed and scenes are vividly described. It is sad that this book has been out of print for so long. A new edition with a modern translation would be a great literary treat.

Scarlet Women. J. D. Christilian

This book has the format of a historical detective novel, complete with a Marlowesque detective and a double murder to be solved. The detail of 19th century New York life and personalities makes this a delightful work for lovers of this period.

Yet within this framework, this fictional mystery novel also takes a probing look at the status of women in 1870s New York. The title Scarlet Women refers to the depiction that women had few choices other than prostitution to earn a living at the time.

One of the reasons I read and liked the novel is that it gives an accurate and sensitive portayal of the famous 19th century feminist, spiritualist and free-thinker Victoria Woodhull. Even 130 years later, some of her ideas are still too liberal for mainstream America!

So if you like your detective novels with a strong feminist flavour and historical accuracy I recommend this book. It succeeds as a mystery, a social commentary, and a historic novel.
Hiroshima. Laurence Yep

This is a wonderful children's book about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It tells the story in simple yet thoughtful and elegant language. Starting with the bomber crew, the book explains the bombing in context of World War II and its effects on the city and people of Hiroshima. The author takes you into the lives of two sisters and shows how the bomb changed everything. Then the book goes on to explain the aftermath with people dying of radiation sickness even years after the bomb was used. Lastly, it describes the current state of the world's nuclear powers and the threat of nuclear winter. Older children and teens might prefer the manga or anime Barefoot Gen, but this is a better introduction for young children to a difficult subject.

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by the Sieur Louis de Conte. Samuel Clemens.

Mark Twain wasn't the only pseudonym used by Samuel Clemens. When this book was first serialized in Harper's Magazine in 1895, it was presented as "Freely Translated out of the Ancient French into Modern English from the Original Unpublished Manuscript in the National Archives of France" - a found manuscript with no connection to the famous author. The book presents itself as a memoir by a fictional companion of Joan's written for his family in the final years of life. The narrator claims to be a childhood friend of hers who, being one of the few people of her village that can write, accompanies her and becomes her secretary during her military career. After her capture and imprisonment, he sneaks into Rouen, where she is to be tried, and becomes an assistant to the official recorder of the the events. Thus, the author has established a single voice that can tell the complete history of the brief, miraculous life of the Maid of Orleans.

The events of the book have been simply summed up in a paragraph in WIKIPEDIA's entry on the Hundred Years War as follows:
By 1428, the English were ready to pursue the war again,
laying siege to Orléans. Their force was insufficient to
fully invest the city, but larger French forces remained
passive. In 1429, Joan of Arc convinced the Dauphin to
send her to the siege, saying she had received visions
from God telling her to drive out the English. She raised
the morale of the local troops and they attacked the
English redoubts, forcing the English to lift the siege.
Inspired by Joan the French took several English strong
points on the Loire. Shortly afterwards a French army some
8000 strong broke through English archers at Patay with
heavy cavalry, defeating a 3000 strong army commanded by
Falstaff and John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. The first
major French land victory of the wars, this opened the way
for the Dauphin to march to Reims for his coronation as
Charles VII. After Joan was captured by the Burgundians in
1430 and later sold to the English and executed, the French
advance stalled in negotiations.
Clemens presents, through this memoir form, a story of a small group of Joan's friends from her village of Domremy who are caught up in her vision and quest and follow her into battle. They see how this poor, unschooled girl has the wisdom to convince the learned men of the Catholic Church and the French government of her mission, how she was able to raise an army and bring it success in battle despite the reservations of her generals, and how she was able to inspire the people of France to believe in their collective selves, the country of France, in spite of their foreign occupation and poor leadership. Through this approach, we the readers get a wonderful insight into the miraculous influence that Joan had on France at the time.

One might expect the irreverent Mark Twain, who wrote many scandalous pieces to be somewhat satirical in presenting this biography, but that is not the case. While his writing in this book is critical of church and state, his approach to the personal character of Joan puts her above reproach. He could find nothing in her life that was suspect, and he studied the records for 12 years. While he seems unsure about the nature of her voices, he shows Joan as firmly believing that they were real and of divine origin.

This is a mature Clemens who is married with a daughter Joan's age, and he seems happy to have found a human hero who didn't have ulterior motives when closely examined. He liked this best of all his work, yet the critics didn't share his feelings. The original Harper edition ran to almost 600 pages and was issued in two volumes. The story moves slowly with lots of asides about the infighting and rivalries of those around Joan. This may bother some readers since these are obviously fictional characters and not part of the historic record. Also, Clemens was not a scholar of the 15th century and his characters sometimes act more like 19th century Americans than French peasants. Yet these are minor flaws in a story that is an incredible introduction to the life and accomplishments of a truly remarkable person. I, personally, was disappointed that he didn't get closer to his subject Joan of Arc. He gives us the viewpoint of someone who was there and saw everything, but he never gets you inside the mind of Joan. Maybe that is the best we can hope for when reading about such an extraordinary person.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Blue Lotus. Hergé

The Blue Lotus is a sequel to Cigars of the Pharaoh, in which Tintin struggled with an international gang of smugglers in north Africa and India. In the current volume, the intrigue with the smugglers takes Tintin from India to Shanghai where his life is constantly in danger as the smugglers try to stop him from finding a cure for their secret poison of madness. There is a racial bias in this volume in favor of the Chinese of Shanghai over the British and Japanese who are portrayed as scheming and self-centered. Hergé must have sympathized with these colonized people who were being threatened by rising Japanese aggression.

Tintin's friendly adversaries, the twin Thompson brothers, detectives, make their appearance in this volume and there is a very funny scene where they try to disguise themselves as Chinese in pre-reform costumes and become the center of attention. However, the heroes of the book are the elderly Wang and young Chang, two remarkably clever and resourceful allies.

This series is great at portraying the world between the two great wars in a way that is simple yet respectful. The adventures are well crafted and the color illustrations are sumptuous in detail. Shanghai really comes to life in this book with its opium dens, busy streets, and tea shops.

Cigars of the Pharaoh. Hergé

Cigars of the Pharaoh is an early volume in a series of graphic novel adventures starring the fictional international reporter Tintin, a young man who ends up solving mysteries rather than reporting news.

In this installment Tintin and his talking dog Snowy are taking a quiet holiday cruise where they meet an absent-minded scholar, a movie producer, and the twin Thompson brothers detectives. Arrested by the Thompsons because someone planted heroin in his room Tintin jumps ship in Port Said and bumps into the professor.

He agrees to help the professor seek out a hidden Egyptian tomb. When they find the tomb, it is full of mummified archaeologists and cases of curiously labeled cigars. Then they are drugged and captured and put on a ship.

A series of escapes and captures keeps the story exciting as Tintin keeps running into the professor, the Thompsons, and the movie producer, while running from an international gang of smugglers and making his way from Egypt to India.

Eventually, he solves the mystery of the Cigars of the Pharaoh, while portraying the various populations of this part of the world without patronizing them. An exciting adventure that continues in a second volume called The Blue Lotus.

This series is great at portraying the world between the two great wars in a way that is simple yet respectful. The adventures are well crafted and the color illustrations are sumptuous in detail.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bittersweet : The Story of Sugar. Peter Macinnis

Bittersweet is a wonderfully interesting and engrossing history of a major food crop filled with interesting details concerning people and events. Although Peter Macinnis traces the story of sugar from its prehistoric origins in New Guinea through to the 20th century, he does so in a very entertaining rather than comprehensive way. As such, this is a good introduction, but will leave the reader with many questions unanswered.

The subtitle, The Story of Sugar could really have been The Story of Sugar and Slavery since, according to the author, this form of forced labor has been so integral to the success of the crop. In fact I am sure that the "Bitter" half of the title is a reference to slavery. Macinnis states that not only the institution of slavery, but also the global politics of Colonialism, has its foundation in the global production of sugar.

So as you can see, the world as we know it has to a large extent been molded by the story of sugar. Thus this book, or some other like it, is important reading for a good understanding of modern world history. Being an Australian gives the author just enough distance from the European and American sugar empires to tell the story with a balanced and somewhat objective point of view.

The book is illustrated with black-and-white maps and each chapter ends with a historic sugar recipe. There is a two page glossary of terms related to sugar production as well as a seven page bibliography of further readings. There are no footnotes to break the narrative.
This is a great introduction to the story of one of the most important cash crops in world history.

The Death of King Tsongor. Laurent Gaude

In his youth King Tsongor inherited a small kingdom from his father. Through war and courage he built a vast empire. But now Tsongor is an old man. He is about to marry his only daughter to the prince of a neighboring land. The prince, at the head of a vast army, has arrived at the city gates loaded down with presents. At this moment of supreme happiness for Tsongor and his kingdom, another suitor shows up leading a second army. He is the childhood love of the princess who has been away building his fortune and power. He has rushed back to claim her based on her long-ago promise to be his bride.

Two men, each with an army outside his gates, have been promised his daughter. Tsongor is tired of war. He stays up the whole night to decide what to do.

What does his daughter Samilia do now that she has two men to decide between? What of these men who cannot lose face before their armies? And lastly, whose side does Samilia's father and brothers take?

This is the story of Tsongor's decision and the events that follow from it. It is an epic tale filled with tragedy, told in a sparse yet hypnotic style fairy tale style.

The translation from the French is excellent. This is Gaude's first work to be translated into English. I hope we will see more.

Bungalow Nation. Diane Maddex & Alexander Vertikoff

Bungalow Nation is a truly sumptuous and detailed look at American bungalows.With color pictures on every page, this book is a wonderful balance of text and graphics. The author's text and the photographs by Alexander Vertikoff together present a well-rounded introduction to bungalow style through brief looks at over 75 specific examples of bungalow architecture.

In a chapter called "In The Land Of The Bungalow" the book starts with a brief history of the origins and growth of the architectural style and its place in American history. This chapter is followed by brief treatments of specific aspects of bungalow style: the outside, porches, the inside, fireplaces, built-ins, and furnishings.

Then the author and photographer take us to five different cities to look at examples of bungalows in each. Sample bungalows in Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, and Washington DC are highlighted in two to four page spreads. Each house has a description and history of the house and some information on the current owners. This is followed by some photographs of specific features with captions describing each.

The book ends with a bibliography and lists of organizations and architects in each of the five areas highlighted.

This is a lovely book. The bugalows are beautifully photographed. The endpapers are sheet music for the song "In The Land Of the Bungalow" by George F. Devereaux. The cover has a color print of a crewel embroidery of dragonflies. It is a labor of love that is a delight to read and a treat to the eyes. If you love bungalows, this is the book for you.

I got this book because of my plans to remodel the kitchen and bath of my 1930 bungalow and was looking for ways to do so while retaining the original integrity of the house. This book has given me many good ideas.
Strangers in Paradise - Pocket Book 5. Terry Moore

This fifth volume of the Pocket Book compilation edition of the Strangers in Paradise comic books contains the original comics numbered Volume III, issues #61 - #76 plus issues #46, #49, and #73. The author plans to bring the series to an end with comic #90 so there is probably envisioned eventually a Strangers in Paradise Pocket Book 6 that will bring the series to completion.

This volume starts with a lengthy flashback to David and Darcy's youth and adventures leading up to the time where the first volume begins. This is followed by a glimpse into Katchoo's successful career as an artist in Dallas. She is seeing a psychiatrist who encourages her to keep a journal as a way to explore her buried emotions. Another sequence explores Francine's relationship with her father and her mother's past. Then the story switches over to Casey who has decided to put aside her gym training career and become a Las Vegas showgirl. David and Katchoo go to Vegas with her and rekindle their romance. Freddie has fallen for a pathologist at the Dallas morgue but has a hard time with her work. Meanwhile Francine and her doctor husband move to Dallas which causes Katchoo to long for Francine again. Just when the reader thinks that there may be some closure on this three-way romance, the author leaves our characters and ends the book with a very long digression called Molly & Poo: A Collection of Moments, a 19th century Gothic mystery romance with two women.

With nine issues of the original comics yet to be written and published, it will be over a year before we the readers ever get a chance to buy the final Volume 6 of this Pocket Book series. For the impatient, the author's website does offer a subscription to the final issues of the comic books.