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review 2018-07-23 09:20
Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen by Margaret C. Jones
Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians - Margaret Jones

TITLE:  Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen:  Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

 

AUTHOR: Margaret C. Jones

 

EXPECTED PUBLICATION DATE:       

30 August 2018

 

FORMAT: ARC ebook

 

ISBN-13: 9781526733962

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NOTE: I received an Advanced Readers Copy of this book from NetGalley. This review is my honest opinion of the book.

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This biography is about Alfred the Great's daughter, Aethelflaed; about ther life and achievements, as well as the world that made her.  Aethelflaed was a remarkable women who led armies in battle against the vikings, negotiated treaties, founded shrines and churches, planned towns, and ruled a kingdom in her own right, which involved tax collection and law administration.  She also attempted to pass the rule of Mercia to her daughter Aelfwynn.  This well-written and well researched book covers the cultural and familial world that shaped Aethelflaed's personality and beliefs.  It covers her early life, the years of her marriage, and the world she made after her husband's death.  An interesting chapter deals with Aethelflaed's legacy and legand.  The book also includes a section of notes that provides a guide of places around the Midlands that still bear traces of Aethelflaed's life and work or have memorial tributes to her, which may be of interest to anyone travelling to this part of England.  There are many maps and illustrations, however this book lacks a locality map of where Mercia fits into Greater England and also lacking is a timeline.  While I found this biography interesting and accessible ( narrative was distinctly story-like), there was too much speculation on the part of the author, though this appears to be due to the lack of reliable source material for this time period.  All-in-all, this is an entertaining and informative, if somewhat superficial, biography of Aethelflaed, Queen of Mercia.

 

 

OTHER BOOK:


A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons: The Beginnings of the English Nation by Geoffrey Hindley

 

 

 

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review 2018-07-22 23:11
E.M. Forster: A New Life
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat

Before judging my reading experience of this book based on my star rating, let me say this:

 

This was not a bad book and there are aspects of this biography that provide a valuable insight into Forster's life and work. However, this biography really follows Forster's life from one angle only, depending on what you expect from a biography, mileage on this may vary.

 

Moffat starts the book with an explanation of her approach, which in turn is based on something Christopher Isherwood said when looking at a stack of biographies about Forster:

"Of course all those books have got to be re-written," he said. "Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing's any good."

That is, Moffat is quoting from an Isherwood biography by John Lehmann here, and whether this is a true account or was written as a dramatic embellishment, I could not say. 

It does, however, go straight to the heart of Moffat's biography ... and also to one of the criticisms I have.

 

Moffat does an excellent job presenting Forster in the context of his sexuality, or more precisely his initial struggles with it and the immense pressure he felt of not being able to live openly for fear of persecution and, indeed, prosecution. Being a young man at the start of the 20th century, Forster would have only been too aware of the trials of Oscar Wilde and would himself witness the arrest of friends and acquaintances over the decades. 

 

His resentment over not being able to tell the stories he really wanted to tell and over having to work within the expectations of societal conventions lead to Forster stopping to write major works of fiction after A Passage to India (1924). That is, he did write another major novel, Maurice, but insisted that it should not be published until after his death as the story tells of the relationship between two men and he feared the repercussions. (Btw, Maurice apparently includes a game-keeper scene that may have inspired D.H. Lawrence - one of the few people who were aware of the manuscript - to mock it in Lady Chatterley's Lover)   

 

Moffat explores Forster's diaries - including his "locked" diaries, which he also only allowed access after his death - in detail and we do get a clear picture of the anxieties and of the passions Forster had, and Moffat does well to connect Forster's diary entries with the lives of his friends, peers, and with perception of homosexuality in society through the decades. 

 

However, this is also the main point where this book fell down for me. Moffat goes into a lot of detail. Salacious detail. Lots and lots of it. At times, I felt like whole chapters were focusing about who bedded whom more so than Forster's life and work. Rather than developing an argument, it felt like some of the descriptions merely served to provide a sensationalist hook. 

 

I really should have liked this more than I did, but the meandering descriptions of relationships (not just Forster's but also of his friends and acquaintances) made me skim over quite a few paragraphs. There was little point to most of them.

 

The other criticism I have is with Moffat's writing style. It did not work for me. Her narrative sounded dramatised in a way that made the book read more like fiction than non-fiction and some of the descriptions, as a result of the narrations, did not sound factual even tho they may have been. This was not helped by the way that references were not clearly marked in the text. They were there, of course, but I should not have to check the reference section in the book to see if a certain line on a page is actually backed up with a source of research. 

 

All in all, this was interesting, but I would not recommend the book without some hesitation.

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review 2018-07-22 22:16
The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel's 'Glass Universe' has a fantastic premise: telling the story of the women who founded, funded, and worked in the Harvard Observatory from the late 19th century to well into the 20th.

There were marvelous strides made in astronomy during that time, and it is astonishing to think of how these women were able to parse out the mechanics and make-up of the stars from long examination of glass plate negatives.

The science was marvelous and astonishing. The women themselves, with very few exceptions, seemed to have escaped Sobel's notice. There was an enormous 'cast' of women for Sobel to profile, true, but she could have picked a few representative cases instead of picking 1, or at most 2, dramatic instances from the lives of dozens of scientists and patrons. This is unfortunate, as without a human touch to the narrative, the science made me glaze over.

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review 2018-07-22 20:44
The First Frontier by Scott Weidensaul
The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America - Scott Weidensaul

I was really interested in reading this history of interactions between Native Americans and Europeans in colonial America, though the relatively small number of ratings gave me pause; American history is a popular topic among nonfiction readers. As it turns out I should have heeded those reservations. While I did learn some things from this book, it turned out to be a long, unorganized slog. It took me a long time to read because I returned to it only reluctantly, and because of poor organization did not teach me as much as I was hoping.

This book purports to cover over 250 years of American history, from pre-contact America up through the 1760s or so. The geographic scope, too, is broad: basically everywhere in what’s now the United States where white colonists and explorers came into contact with natives, from Maine to Florida to Ohio. The interaction between the two populations is the author’s focus.

The book mixes individual narratives with larger-scale history, but unfortunately the two facets often don’t connect well, and the history is not relayed in such a way as to be easy to remember. Though roughly chronological, the book doesn’t organize information in any particular way. Chapters have soft-focus, vague titles like “Between Two Fires,” rather than demarcating particular historical periods or events. It’s unclear how the people whose individual stories are told were chosen: are they meant to be important historical actors in their own right (many of them have a role, and from the book it’s difficult to judge how important that role was), or are theirs just interesting stories that happened to survive in written form? In some cases the book discusses people as if they are important, but it’s unclear why.

Perhaps several centuries are just too much to cover in one book, especially with a large geographic area and large number of groups (both European and Native American) involved. There are a lot of details and the author doesn’t really highlight key points or people or remind us who they are when they reappear. A lot of history happens in the background; events specific to the colonists, like disputes between colonies and the Salem witch trials, are mentioned only in passing. The colonies’ internal issues are not what this book is about, of course, but the book is also told mostly from the perspective of the colonists because they’re the ones who left written records. So I was left with a sense of reading a very incomplete history, and without being given a framework with which to organize all these names and details. We get the winter-trekking adventures of some interpreter or captive in the foreground, and then a dense collection of details in the background that aren’t really supported by the personal story.

The author’s citations are also lacking. His endnotes are extensive, but are almost entirely limited to instances where he quotes someone directly. Then he’ll state his own conclusions as fact and give no background at all for how he arrived at them, or share startling information that, because it’s not provided in the form of a direct quotation, has no reference. So it’s hard to evaluate his information.

Underlying all of this, the author doesn’t seem to have a thesis, any particular view or interpretation he’s arguing for. Some would say that’s good, that a historian should simply tell us what happened without putting his own spin on it. But Weidensaul – who as far as I can tell from his bio is an amateur historian – certainly does have a viewpoint; the lack of an organizing principle, a concerted argument, simply makes it harder to pin down, and leaves me wondering why exactly the author wrote this book.

Overall, yes, I learned some things from this book. But it was too tedious and frustrating for me to be likely to recommend.

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review 2018-07-21 18:13
A chummy history of how Churchill became Prime Minister
Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister - Nicholas Shakespeare

The selection of Winston Churchill as Neville Chamberlain's successor in May 1940 is regarded today as one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. With his elevation to the premiership Britain was committed to a course of action in the Second World War that ended with victory over Nazi Germany. Given his role in the Allied triumph and subsequent anointing as the greatest Briton ever, such a choice can be perceived as inevitable. Yet was it?

One of the great merits of Nicholas Shakespeare's account of the events surrounding the decision is in his detailing the views of the key actors in the spring of 1940 and the choices available to them. In the process, not only does he demonstrate that Churchill's selection was far from ordained, but he also shows that it was more than a simple choice between Churchill and Lord Halifax traditionally described in most accounts of the event. As Shakespeare explains, ministers and Members of Parliament had several alternatives available to them. For many of them, Churchill was an unacceptable choice for the top post given his recklessness and adventurism, while others seemed much more appealing candidates. Even the very notion that Chamberlain needed to be replaced because of the military debacle in Norway the month before was not generally accepted, and only emerged over the course of the "Norway debate" and the subsequent division that exposed the weakness of Chamberlain's support.

To detail the events of May 1940 and uncover the thinking of the various people involved Shakespeare went beyond the traditional accounts in memoirs and biographies and undertook additional archival research and interviews. This he knits together in a narrative to which he brings all his skills as a novelist, making for an account that is highly engaging. By comparing the at times conflicting accounts and retrospective explanations, he has produced a very detailed description of how it came down in the end to Churchill. Yet it is also an incredibly chummy account, focusing almost exclusively upon the actions and decisions of a select group of elite men (and even a couple of women). While this is understandable given the small circle of people in politics and media at the time, the weaknesses in this approach are more evident in the account of the Norway disaster that precedes it. Given its importance to the events that followed Shakespeare spends a third of the book describing its failings, yet his account of events rarely strays beyond the experiences of key officers and government officials, creating the impression that it was merely their personal experiences which drove their objections to Chamberlain rather than the broader defeat that informed their criticisms of his handling of the war.

 

By narrowing his focus to a group of elite figures (one that includes his own uncle), Shakespeare trivializes the motivations of many of the men involved in the decision to turn out Chamberlain. It's a glaring flaw in what is in many respects an excellent book, one that details the chain of events that would define the course of world history. It is especially unfortunate, given that Shakespeare's extensive research and ability as a writer have produced what is the best account yet of how Churchill became prime minister in those fateful weeks in the spring of 1940. Its weaknesses, however, cause it to fall short of the definitive account it could have been with just a broadening of its scope.

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