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review 2016-07-30 15:24
Gripping account of Churchill's prison escape, but even more fascinating insights into history
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill - Candice Millard

As she’s already proved in The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard really knows how to tell a gripping story, and this account of young Winston Churchill’s incredible prison escape during the Boer War made me postpone all other activities as I stayed glued to its pages, but--as with her other titles--the event that inspired the book isn’t the only thing that makes Millard’s telling so interesting. For me it’s maybe not even the primary thing, though it’s true that episodes like Churchill desperately leaping onto a moving train and hiding out for days in a pitch-black, rat-infested coal mine were the parts that kept my heart racing.


But the insights into the history and cultural norms of the peoples involved in the story were even more fascinating for me than Churchill’s harrowing escapades. Millard gives concise but detailed backstories of the too complacent British and their empire in the waning days of Victoria’s rule, the fiercely independent and resourceful Boers who after a hundred years felt bound and entitled to the lands they’d settled in southern Africa, and the native African tribes of the area, including the Zulu and the Xhosa, some of whom had inhabited the space for thousands and thousands of years.


The book also gave me a deeper understanding of Churchill’s character, in all its admirable and infuriating glory. The roles of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela (who lived years after the Boer War) and a number of officers in the  British and Boer military are also well described, and the influences or thoughts of Catherine the Great, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Theodore Roosevelt, and the American President William McKinley are noted. All three of Millard’s books cover the late nineteenth century and/or early twentieth century, an era that to the benefit of her readers she seems to know well and is certainly able to bring to life.


I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost or obligation by the publisher. Review opinions are mine. 

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review 2015-10-30 13:41
Born in a brothel, died in a mansion
The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic - Margaret A. Oppenheimer

Born in a brothel just weeks after the start of the American Revolutionary War, Betsy Bowen’s life may not have started auspiciously, but by the time Eliza Jumel Burr died 90 years later the Civil War had ended and she had transformed herself into a prominent citizen who had mostly disguised her past, a collector of art who was fluent in two languages, and a businesswoman who had accumulated so much wealth her heirs and heir-wannabes battled for years over the property she left behind, one case going all the way to the Supreme Court.


And yet, if she is remembered at all today it’s because her second marriage was to the notorious but apparently still charming Aaron Burr, a former vice president who was disgraced after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and to add insult to injury in Burr’s biographies she’s often described dismissively as a former prostitute, which is probably not accurate. What’s ironic about the way Eliza Jumel Burr  has been misrepresented is that the truth of her astounding path of upward mobility is far more dramatic than any of the falsehoods told about her.


This captivating biography of Eliza not only rights those wrongs, it’s a real page turner. Chapters tend to end on an exciting note, so I often found myself reading much longer than I had planned. While the book is focused on Eliza, it’s also an interesting cultural history of life in the years after the American and French Revolutions--Eliza’s  first husband was a savvy and warmhearted merchant from France, and the couple lived in that country for a while after The Reign of Terror had settled down.


Though well researched there are gaps in Eliza’s life, especially her early years, because records left behind don’t tell much about what she was doing then, but I still found her story moving, even romantic. When Eliza met Stephen Jumel, the man she would soon marry, she had care of an unrelated young boy whose mother had died, something that was apparently not unusual at the time. Jumel generously paid for them both to have French lessons and treated Eliza’s charge as a son. Later the couple they adopted one of Eliza’s nieces who was brought up by them with lots of love and every advantage money could buy.


There were definitely ups and downs in the couple’s relationship, especially as they grew older, but I was struck by how much Stephen trusted Eliza to make astute business decisions and help manage their growing estate. After Stephen was killed in a carriage accident she was able to continue to increase her financial assets, making her a very wealthy women and bringing her to the attention of perennially broke Aaron Burr, who ran through some of her fortune before she managed to divorce him--being a husband he, of course, had charge of her money.


Eliza wasn’t a conventional women of her time because she was unable or unwilling to maintain a facade to hide her emotions and ambitions behind a mask of daintiness and allure, which meant the upper echelons of  society were never as accepting of her as she wanted them to be. But her accomplishments and life trajectory are astounding and make a fascinating tale that is well told in this book.


I read an advanced review ebook copy of this book supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss at no cost. Review opinions are mine.

Source: jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/born-in-a-brothel-died-in-a-mansion
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review 2015-10-29 15:31
Elizabeth I as a Renaissance prince
Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince - Lisa Hilton

If you wanted to create a character for your novel or play, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with someone as interesting and story-worthy as England’s Elizabeth I. After her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded Elizabeth was declared a bastard, but she continued with her rigorous education and the hardships she experienced as a result of her demotion helped make her politically savvy, a trait that saved her neck more than once and ultimately put her on the throne. I’ve enjoyed several biographies about Elizabeth I, but this one has extras that make it stand out.


Lisa Hilton’s premise is that Elizabeth saw herself as a Renaissance prince, and while Elizabeth was happy to invoke the conventions of courtly females when it suited her, she lived in an age when royal gender was more fluid than we might think now. Hilton spends some time describing the Renaissance era and what being a Renaissance prince would mean, which leads her to a discussion of contemporary literature, period attitudes, and Machiavelli. Elizabeth’s relatively long life is covered thoroughly, but more space is given to art analysis, cultural philosophies, and intellectual history than I’ve read elsewhere, which I found fascinating. I’ve read other books by Hilton, my favorite being Horror of Love about Nancy Mitford, and I appreciate the broad scope and thoughtful scrutiny she brings to her subjects, this book about Elizabeth being no exception.


I read an ebook review copy of this book supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss. Review opinions are mine.



--Among the artwork discussed in this biography is Elizabeth in a Judgement of Paris allegory with Juno, Minerva and Venus--the artist is Joris Hoefnagel. The painting hung in her court at Whitehall where it and its message of regal power were seen by thousands of visitors. 


File:Joris Hoefnagel or Hans Eworth - Queen Elizabeth I & the Three Goddesses, ca 1569.jpg

Source: jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/elizabeth-i-as-a-renaissance-prince
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review 2015-10-26 13:30
The life of Queen Victoria’s most rebellious daughter
Queen Victoria's Mysterious Daughter: A Biography of Princess Louise - Lucinda Hawksley

Of all of Queen Victoria’s nine children, Princess Louise was perhaps the most un-Victorian, making her a very interesting royal to read about. Louise painted and sculpted, hung around with pre-Raphaelites, and was a member of the Aesthetic movement. She also embraced exercise, admired unconventional women like novelist George Eliot, supported women’s rights when even her libertine brother Bertie believed females should be compliant and submissive, refused to marry a foreign prince, almost certainly had love affairs, and  may have had a child out of wedlock--which is perhaps why more than 75 years after her death the files on Princess Louise at the Royal Archives remain closed and unavailable for researchers, as if there is something about her that is so shocking it still must be hidden. Even with that source restriction, Lucinda Hawksley has put together a fascinating and intriguing account of Princess Louise, and  through her a picture of Britain and its extended royal family from the Victorian age, when her mother was queen, to the dawn of WWI, when her nephew Kaiser Wilhelm was causing trouble in Germany.

Source: jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/the-life-of-queen-victorias-most-rebellious-daughter
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review 2015-10-21 20:26
A dual duel biography
War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation - John Sedgwick

I didn’t know much about the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr before I read this double biography, but that (of course) didn’t stop me from having an opinion: Hamilton, good; Burr (the “victor”), bad. Learning more about them was revelatory and provided some well needed nuance. John Sedgwick takes readers back to the beginnings of each man's life, revealing surprising similarities and stark contrasts. Both men fought in the Revolutionary War, practiced law in New York City, and held political office--Hamilton worked closely with George Washington and was the first Treasury Secretary, while Burr was Vice President during Thomas Jefferson’s initial term as President. But their contrasts started at birth.  


Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock on a Caribbean island, and then orphaned early and put to work. At twelve he had charge of the Beekman and Cruger shipping business, a job that would have been daunting for most men twice his age. When he was sixteen a ferocious hurricane ravaged the island, but instead of hiding inside Hamilton ventured out to see the storm and then wrote a dramatic account of it for the island’s newspaper. His literary skills brought him to the attention of Hugh Knox, a local minister, who arranged for Hamilton to be educated in America. Hamilton never returned to the island.  


Aaron Burr initially led a more privileged life than Hamilton because he was born into a kind of religious dynasty. His father was a minister and the second president of a prestigious New Jersey college that later became Princeton University, and his grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, a Calvinist minister and a leader of the Great Awakening religious revival of the 1730’s-40’s. Maybe because of his background Burr was driven to accelerate and excel in his studies, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree when he was just sixteen. Burr was a great admirer of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and he made sure that his beloved daughter Theodosia was as well educated as any boy.


Sedgwick’s penetrating account of the eventually fatal rivalry between the two men provides fascinating insights into the personalities involved and the history of their time. The love lives of several Founding Fathers are laid bare and I was intrigued by deportment differences between Federalists and Republicans. Those supporting the Federalist party made formal bows upon meeting and considered the handshake a vulgar Republican custom. George Washington in particular couldn’t bare to be touched. One man who patted Washington on the shoulder to win a bet deeply regretted it afterwards, being almost undone by Washington’s cold stare.


Federalists and Republicans even admired different doctors--Republicans preferred old fashioned bleeding and purging styles of medicine while Federalists like Hamilton favored gentler cures with doctors who allowed the body time to heal itself. America’s polarized politics have a long history.


While I couldn’t understand how he did it, I enjoyed reading about reactions to Hamilton’s financial alchemy. He somehow managed to turn the country’s prodigious debt into money that could be invested in things that would help the young nation grow economically, like canals and roads, but Republicans like Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned a society made up of gentlemen farmers, considered the whole business unseemly.

Moving, informative, and entertaining, the book takes the story forward many years after the Hamilton/Burr duel, including Burr’s audacious attempt to hijack some Louisiana Purchase lands to found his own republic and ending with Burr’s death in 1836.

Source: jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/a-dual-duel-biography
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