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review 2018-01-14 03:21
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home - Denise Kiernan

Biltmore is an enormous Gilded Age estate in North Carolina. It was built on the orders of George Washington Vanderbilt II in the 1880s-90s as a summer retreat and became the largest private home in America. Biltmore is situated on a plot of land to match, over 10 square miles, the bulk of which is forest and now a National Park.  The house itself, astonishingly, remains in private hands. How this came to pass makes for an entertaining bit of history.

I hadn't known much about the origins of Biltmore or its role in the early environmental movement and was impressed. Kiernan veers away from the story of the house to dwell on Vanderbilt family drama, but its to be expected. Not many people just want to hear about stone korbels and inspiration for plasterwork. The Biltmore Vanderbilts lived interesting lives, Edith (George's wife) in particular with her involvement in an Arts & Crafts cottage industry around the estate. The other family members, especially where it seemed Kiernan had to fill gaps of information with speculation such as with Cornelia Vanderbilt (the original heiress), was less interesting. Thanks to this book, Biltmore and its gardens and the park surrounding it have risen above the 'cottages' of Rhode Island as a must-visit for me.

The fact that Biltmore, such a white elephant from the beginning, survived intact through a century as destructive as the last one is remarkable.

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review 2018-01-12 03:05
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder - Caroline Fraser

Over the past couple of years, I've been getting more and more into non-fiction. However, I'm still not one to usually just pick up a biography and read it in its entirety. I usually stick more to memoirs as far as non-fiction goes.


So I don't have much experience with biographies. The only other one I've read all the way through was Neal Gabler's Walt Disney bio. So this was basically new territory for me.


I have to say that at first, Prairie Fires was a little slow for me. It's been years since I've read the Little House books... I think I read them in 3rd grade, so a long time. (But I was very into them at the time. My family even went to Rocky Ridge during a vacation because I was so obsessed.) So that meant that I didn't completely remember the stories all the way through and reading this was a little challenging to remember the books and compare them to the actual events. But I really enjoyed it once I got into it, and it made me remember the series and why I loved it back when I was a kid. (Speaking of that, I should re-read it now... We'll see how this year goes.)


This book was obviously very well researched and written with passion by the author. I could tell by her writing that she was genuinely interested in bringing forth the truths of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life to the reader. 


As for the contents of the book, well.. Some things were devastating to say the least. Reading about when Wilder and her husband left her family in South Dakota to move to Missouri nearly brought me to tears, and then again when both of her parents passed away and Wilder's responses to those events. A lot of it made me despise Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (though at one point I found myself identifying with her. Does that make me terrible? Probably.)


Overall, I really really enjoyed this biography. Though it's not typically something I would read, I loved learning more about Wilder's life and remembering what I loved about her stories when I was younger. 

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review 2018-01-11 22:46
So, Anyway... (Cleese)
So, Anyway... - John Cleese

As part of his narrative schtick in this memoir, John Cleese occasionally engages in exasperated expostulations to his imagined readers, in response to imaginary comments or criticisms from them. In one of those passages, he accuses us of not really being interested in the serious passages of his life, but instead wanting just to have a good laugh. Guilty as charged, Mr. Cleese, guilty as charged. And I'm happy to say that Cleese's whimsical prose and tongue-in-cheek exaggeration frequently delivers that good laugh.


Cleese concentrates almost entirely on his childhood, his school and university days, and his early career in stage and TV comedy, culminating with the coming together of the Monty Python troupe. There is one additional chapter about the reunion stage show decades later (apparently a highly gratifying experience). This imbalance implies either that he considers the later part of his life (including the Fawlty Towers period) not worth chronicling, or else that he thinks there's another book in it.


Cleese comes across as extremely, almost painfully self-aware, but of course he deflects from anything really painful with humour. He is very careful not to criticize those around him. Some of the tensions come through anyway; he admits that the Python group was essentially two entirely separate writing teams - Cleese & Chapman on the one hand, and Idle, Jones & Palin on the other. Other than a fairly mild description of arguing with Terry Jones (accompanied by protestations that it was all beneficial creative tension), Cleese does not dwell on any discord, far less sling mud. One suspects the same is true of his descriptions of family.


I very much enjoyed this, and suspect that most other John Cleese aficionados will too unless they have unrealistic expectations for lots of depth or lots of dirt. I hope he writes volume 2.

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review 2018-01-10 02:05
Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron
Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron - Nicholas Fraser,Marysa Navarro

Having only lived 33 years and been in the public spotlight for the last six, one woman has become in the 60+ years since her death the most iconic and polarizing woman in her country without even holding political office.  Nicholas Fraser in his work, Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron, navigates between the fantastical versions of her life to find the real woman and put her into the context of the Argentina of her time before during and after her life.


Given the multitude of circumstances that Fraser faced to get an accurate portrait of Eva Peron, including her attempts to cover up her family’s illegitimacy, the fact that he was able to give a full account of her is noteworthy.  Because of her short lifespan, the book was never going to be long but Fraser also had to contend with explaining the political atmosphere through Eva’s life especially after she became the First Lady of Argentina.  Along with all of that, Fraser had to contend with the legendary versions of Eva’s life from both pro- and anti-Peronist sources.  Yet the last 30 pages of the book are some of the most fascinating because it details the myth-creating journey that her corpse endured for almost 20 years through several governmental changes before finally being securely laid to rest in Buenos Aires.


Although the sensational accounts of Eva Peron’s life make for the ideal basis for musicals and films, the truth is just as fascinating.  Nicholas Fraser’s biography of the most iconic Argentine political figure of the 20th-century is as close to the truth of her life as one is going to get and still understand the political atmosphere without getting bogged down in minutiae that would have enlarged the book and drifted away from the subject of the book.

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text 2017-12-12 16:21
Reading progress update: I've read 10%.
Yes, Chef: A Memoir - Marcus Samuelsson,Veronica Chambers

So far really enjoying. Reading about Chef Marcus Samuelsson life growing up as an adopted boy from Ethiopia in Sweden. 

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