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review 2018-02-05 00:36
A SENSE OF THE WORLD: HOW A BLIND MAN BECAME HISTORY'S GREATEST TRAVELER by Jason Roberts
A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler - Jason Roberts

An interesting man who went from being a naval lieutenant who suffered from joint pain then became blind and traveled the world alone.  Fascinating!  And this all takes place from 1787-1857.  James Holman was an apothecary/shop owner's son who was destined to follow in his father's footsteps when family fortunes changed.  He goes to the Navy at 12 and expects to be there for the rest of his life but his health turns bad and he must retire on half-salary.  He becomes a Naval Knight of Windsor to retain his half-salary.  He absents himself a lot from his duties as he travels the world.  What is does and how he learns his way around with short funds and limited language skills is remarkable. 

 

I loved that the history of the time is explained and that what is happening in the countries he explores is also given.  That he often is on naval vessels and helps is remarkable.  I also enjoyed seeing the societal downsides of his times.  He is a remarkable man.  I am glad the bookseller recommended it as I was checking out.  Excellent read!

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review 2018-02-04 07:08
King Edward VII
King Edward VII - E.F. Benson

My knowledge about the more recent British kings and queens is more limited than the older ones, and for Edward VII in particular, most of it seemed to come from a book entitled 1000 Years of Annoying the French. However, this was an interesting account which I enjoyed reading, especially the part about his relationship with queen Victoria and the more general history on late 19th century/early 20th century Europe.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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review 2018-01-23 22:29
Richard Burton: Prince of Players (Munn)
Richard Burton: Prince of Players - Michael Munn

This biography of Richard Burton is, I would guess, highly unreliable as to details. Although Michael Munn, the author, was indeed in the entertainment business in minor capacities, I very much doubt he had the kind of access to Burton himself (or to his circle) that would allow him to quote, apparently verbatim, whole stretches of actual conversation so very focused and illuminating about Burton's life. My suspicion that in fact Munn was paraphrasing cribbed versions of secondary sources was confirmed when I compared his account of an incident involving John Gielgud with Sheridan Morley's Gielgud biography, and discovered word-for word-borrowings but written as if told to the author directly by Burton (the tip-off was the idiosyncratic phrase "idiot boards"). That said, Munn does seem to have had some access to Burton (though not perhaps in the chummy way he claims), as well as to some of the more notorious gossips in Hollywood like Roddy McDowall. He also actually gives us a bibliography of sorts, though only a "selected" one; so I suspect he did his reading.

 

This, then, was a quick read with a hefty dose of salt, reliable for at least the bare outlines of Burton's career, and likely also a pretty good reflection of the gossip about Burton over the years. It's not a very happy tale. Indeed, given whatever illness of the mind (or brain) he was suffering from, as well as his lifelong alcoholism, what strikes me about Burton is not the brevity of his working life but the fact that he managed to get as much good work done as he did.

 

I was relieved to read that despite his reputation of having slept with every leading lady he had, Julie Andrews (who shared the stage with him in "Camelot") was notoriously proof against his boozy charms.

 

There's got to be at least one better biography out there, and I remember hearing that Burton's own diaries have been published, so I may come back to him at some point. I'm really far more interested in Peter O'Toole (upon the subject of whom this particular book was pretty light, though apparently they were quite good friends), but reading this book has at least revived in me the desire to go back and watch "Becket" again.

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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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