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review 2019-12-15 19:52
Versailles by Tony Spawforth
Versailles: A Biography of a Palace - Tony Spawforth

This is mostly a social history of Versailles in the reigns of Louis XIV through Louis XVI, and as such it’s pretty interesting (though the first couple of chapters, which focus more on the architectural history of the palace, were less so to me). It answers questions such as: how did people (mostly nobility) get jobs at court, and why did they want them? How did courtiers gain access to the king? How much privacy did the monarchs and their families actually have? Did these people even bathe? (Answer: rarely, and in many cases only for medicinal purposes.)

Although it’s interesting material at a relatively short length (254 pages of text followed by endnotes) and Spawforth’s writing is perfectly readable, I still moved through it a bit slowly and wasn’t as engaged as I would have liked. This might be because I recently read a similar book about the English court at the same time – which in many ways wasn’t as different as you might expect. However, I think the real reason is that while Spawforth conveys facts well enough, he isn’t much of a storyteller: there are a lot of recurring “characters” here, mostly royalty and a handful of nobles who wrote prolifically about their life at court, but little personality emerges and there’s not much sense of what their lives were like outside the context of the specific anecdotes illustrating the author’s points.

At any rate, interesting and accessible book, but not one I’d recommend you go out of your way to find unless you have a special interest in the subject matter.

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review 2019-12-13 00:54
Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator
Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator - Gary Land Ph.D.

The man who came to personify the Review and Herald over 50 years of working on it going from one of the young pioneers to elder statesmen of the Second Advent movement.  Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator by Gary Land chronicles the life of this indispensable yet very opinionated man who was influential with Adventist readers around the United States.


Land quickly covers Smith’s early life in New Hampshire including the two biggest events of that time, the loss of his leg at age 12 and his conversion to Millerism.  This latter event eventually led to Smith’s joining the then small Sabbath-keeping Adventists led by Joseph Bates and the Whites, the latter Smith would impress when he submitted a 3,000-line blank verse poem about the foundation, rise, and progress of the Adventist movement leading to James White offering Smith a position at the Review and Herald.  Smith did everything for the magazine from typesetting to editorials during his early years before James White took a backseat, letting the younger Smith take the lead.  Throughout his tenure Smith would constantly cover Adventist doctrines and how present-day events had prophetic implications especially when it came to other Christians attempting to get through Sunday legislation on various levels of government.  Yet Smith flirted with controversy throughout his time at the magazine and in denominational work from Battle Creek College to the 1888 Minneapolis meeting to confrontations with the General Conference leadership and getting admonished by Ellen White.


With a text of almost 250 pages, Land is quick and concise in his writing but not in his research as seen in his chapter endnotes.  While the reader does get a very informative look at Smith’s life, there seems to be a rushed feeling with the biography.  Unfortunately, this seems to be a consequence of Land working between cancer treatments to complete this and two other historical works that he finished just before his death.


Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator is the first biography of its kind in over 35 years through with a different perspective than previous books.  Gary Land’s informative and concise wording gives the reader a better look at the man whose name is known in Adventist circles but his life is not.

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review 2019-12-13 00:05
English Lit Relit: A Short History of English Literature from the Precursors (Before Swearing) to the Pre-Raphaelites and a Little After - Richard Armour
English Lit Relit: A Short History of En... English Lit Relit: A Short History of English Literature from the Precursors (Before Swearing) to the Pre-Raphaelites and a Little After - Richard Armour

That's better. That's Armour at the top of his game.


Not to oversell him. He's mildly amusing in his snarky survey of English lit. But there's also a whiff of the old uncle who's humor is rather old-fashioned, but he's always been nice and pleasant and it's easy to just let him ramble on.


So I'm enjoying my Armour binge but am probably not going to request all the other ones. It is good to have them lurking there in the back of my mind, waiting for another low-stress reading bout. Probably though I will limit myself to literature and academia in the future. That's where he's best.


You know what these books are like? It just occurred to me: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It's the art: buxom young women in quaint attire and it's definitely old-fashioned, but not too offensive.


Praising with faint damns.


Library copy.

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review 2019-12-11 23:47
It all started with Marx;: A brief and objective history of Russian communism, the objective being to leave not one stone, but many, unturned, to ... Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and others - Richard Willard Armour
It all started with Marx;: A brief and o... It all started with Marx;: A brief and objective history of Russian communism, the objective being to leave not one stone, but many, unturned, to ... Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and others - Richard Willard Armour

I finished this one and it took forever because I didn't like it. And then I more or less immediately started English Lit Relit. It could have been a bad choice: if I was just tired of Armour's sameness, then another would have been an awful idea.

But I'm really enjoying English Lit. Yeah, my degree is in English lit, so I know more about the topic, which probably helps some. That isn't the big difference though. The big difference, in my considered and re-considerd opinion, is that Armour doesn't know as much about communism and/or Russian history.

In Marx the jokes rarely rise above "he was short". So, not quality humor.That's both terribly obvious and not actually amusing.

English Lit, though, that's his specialty. So the jokes are more clever, more subtle, and for that matter, probably better auditioned and rehearsed. It's easy to imagine Armour the Professor lecturing on early English poets. You're plowing through a thousand years of literature in a semester, your text is a fat, heavy Norton Anthology printed on tissue paper to fit in as many pages a possible. Some of it is familiar, or stirring, or new to you, but much of it is just a tedious droning on and on about the same tired symbolism and such. You maybe get something three things that stopped being amusing a couple of centuries back, and once in the whole class if you're lucky there's something that really amuses you. In that setting a lighthearted lecture, or a throw-away line, can really wake you back up.


So, that was an interesting thing to realize.


Library copy

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review 2019-12-11 04:47
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie

I enjoyed this book a lot: it’s an entertaining and accessible biography that is nevertheless serious and thorough, and with a fascinating subject to boot. Born a princess in a tiny German principality in the early 18th century, Catherine (actually named Sophia, until the then-Empress of Russia renamed her upon her conversion to Orthodoxy) was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne. Unfortunately, her early friendship with her deeply damaged teenaged husband soon soured, and when he ascended the throne almost 20 years later, Catherine soon deposed him and took the throne for herself. She ruled for nearly 35 years, expanded Russia’s territory, attempted with limited success to bring Enlightenment ideas to the country, carried on lively correspondence with philosophers, patronized the arts, and had a lively love life that may or may not have involved a second, secret marriage but certainly included a succession of boy toys in her later years.


Massie gives each part of Catherine’s life its due, from her childhood through the end of her reign; once she takes the throne, he spends more time on the wars and policy issues than her personal life, while still giving space to the latter. Fortunately, many of Catherine’s letters survived, and she wrote a memoir (though hardly a complete one), which allows the author to integrate her own words into the text. It’s quite a history lesson – I learned a ton about Russia and about European politics at the time – but Massie’s writing remains highly readable and entertaining. I read this with as much enjoyment as if it had been a novel. Massie’s take on Catherine is admiring but not hagiographic; it’s clear, for instance, how some of her ideals fell by the wayside as she grew older.


Nevertheless, there are some issues. Massie cites sources only for direct quotations, leaving readers in the dark as to the provenance of his other information. This is particularly problematic when he writes about Catherine’s childhood, drawing distinctions between what she wrote in her memoir and how she “really felt” (how does he know)? While he doesn’t seem to be making any particular argument with the book, he also doesn’t highlight where his interpretation may differ from the mainstream: he may be entirely convinced based on his research that Catherine’s son and heir was fathered by her lover rather than her husband, but it appears this view is not as universally accepted as his treatment of it as uncontroversial fact might have you believe. Finally, he seems too forgiving of Catherine’s failure to do anything about serfdom, though to his credit he does describe its abuses in detail.


All that said, I think this is an excellent biography, both entertaining and educational. And I appreciated the sections in which Massie goes a bit beyond his primary subject: the French Revolution chapter has come in for criticism, but as someone who came into it not understanding how events proceeded there, I found it helpful. Other sections, like the mini-biography of John Paul Jones, seemed a little tangential but were still interesting and helped paint a fuller picture of the times. I would definitely recommend this book to those who enjoy popular history or biography.

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