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review 2017-12-01 16:53
The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (Brodie)
The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton - Fawn M. Brodie

Given my usual taste for actors' biographies, you could be forgiven a momentary confusion. This is not a biography of that Richard Burton, but rather of Sir Richard Francis Burton, 19th-century explorer, adventurer, extraordinary linguist and translator, and decidedly an enigmatic character. The two things most closely associated with his name are his (unsuccessful) search for the source of the Nile, and his translation of The Arabian Nights, but that does not in the slightest suggest the extent of this man's experiences or of his overwhelming curiosity about the variety of human existence around the world. He had the good fortune to be born white, male, and of a class that allowed him to pursue that curiosity first under the auspices of the army and later either with the backing of scientific societies or as a diplomatic representative in various far-flung parts of the world. In this scholarly but not dry biography, first published in 1967 (and one of many biographies of Burton), Fawn Brodie is first a faithful chronicler, with reference to all the evidence that was left history by Isabel Burton, Burton's wife and first biographer, who provided great insights in her own work, but committed the all-too-common unforgivable Victorian sin of trying to control the narrative by destroying primary sources like journals after Burton's death. (Isabel, by the way, is an interesting enough figure to have been the subject of biographies in her own right, and I may follow up on that some day).

 

Brodie is, as I said, first of all a faithful chronicler, but she does venture into character analysis, most particularly in her first two and final chapters, though always adducing generous amounts of documentary evidence from the writings of Burton and his wife. She is interesting on the subject of Burton's relationship with his mother, for whom he seems to have emphasized and developed the rebellious, even immoral side of his nature, on the understanding that it attached her to him even more firmly. Brodie says much that is plausible about the nature and development of Burton's hunger for knowledge of all things exotic, a hunger that drove him to explore both forbidden places (Mecca) and the forbidden aspects of human life in general (he was absolutely fascinated by unusual sexual practices and genital mutilation). The biographer also notes that there was a shadow that hung over Burton's career from a fairly early stage, after he made a detailed report from India (lost, according to Brodie's notes) about a homosexual brothel; and she also records without being over-dramatic about it, his fairly close associations with a couple of notorious homosexuals such as Algernon Swinburne. All the evidence, both from his writings and the known facts of his life, suggest that Burton conducted his life entirely as a heterosexual, but Brodie does permit herself some small suggestion towards the end that twin anxieties about castration/impotence and homosexuality were drivers throughout his life and particularly in the last phase of his career where he was particularly taken up with the creation of "naughty books" (a phase that sorely taxed Isabel's more conventional sensibilities and caused her to take on the role of censor both before and after his death). Remembering that this biography was written in the 1960s, I'd be interested in comparing Brodie's take on Burton's sexuality with that of more recent scholars.

 

I have overemphasized the sexual element in this review, I find. If you are fascinated by the phenomenon of the beginnings of detailed sociological observation, it seems Burton is your man. If you are enthralled by explorers who persisted in the face of all sorts of nasty illness and bodily calamity (including a javelin right through both sides of the face), Burton's career is full of that kind of incident. And if the horrors of Victorian reputation-politics and internecine feuds between geographical adventurers appeal to you, then the Burton and Speke story - two entirely incompatible men who travelled together for hundreds of miles and each came out of it with a different story - is worth reading about.

 

I admit it: when I first picked up this volume, it was under the fleeting wrong impression that it was a biography of that other Richard Burton. But I am very glad indeed that, realizing my mistake upon scanning the back cover blurb, I said, "hmm, that might be interesting" and picked it up anyway. Because yes, it was very interesting, and I would recommend it.

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review 2017-11-29 23:54
The Art of Asking
The Art of Asking - Amanda Palmer

I was not prepared for what I got in this book. I knew it was a memoir, but it really does focus on asking and all ways we ask people for things and all the things we don't ask for until it hurts too much. It's a beautiful book and made me realize that  I really need to work on asking more.

I absolutely loved this book. I'll be honest, I hadn't actually heard of Amanda Palmer before seeing this book. I'm not as big into music as I am books and I've rarely gone to Kickstarter, so it's not much of a surprise either. I listened to her TED talk (and I do love TED!), which covers many of the same bases as her book. I'd consider it a really condensed version.

The art of asking is really rather genius, though it's not exactly foreign to my life. There's a connection between what Palmer refers to as the art of asking and my husband's work in the church. Churches don't make people pay for their services, they ask. But churches are dying off and Kickstarters are getting more money every day. They seem to have lost the art to it. I have recommended the book to him and I hope he reads/listens to it.

I listened to it, which was definitely the way to go. Palmer narrates the book and she even sings a song between chapters occasionally. For me, it did just as promised in the blurb. It made me rethink some things, specifically what it means to ask instead of demand and to share the process of creating art with those around us.

I hate Twitter but I understand her love of it. I've never been good at starting conversations with people in front of me. I've never been good at being seen or letting others know that I see them. With these in mind, the book has created a degree of fear that I will never get to where I want to be. But then it always comes back in a haunting sort of way. I can get there, but I have to grow first and I have to do the things that need to be done.

Plus, I want connection when I get there, not adoration or whatever. It made me pay a bit more attention to the Twitter feeds of the artists I do admire. It makes me want to connect with them on some small level. I'm working up to it. I followed a few more since reading this, mostly comic creators that I love. Reaching out for connection is a little terrifying. But I think about standing on that box, trying to give someone a flower. I want to try something like that one day.

I loved that the book began with a introduction by Brene Brown. Some of you may recall my love for her and her work. Their messages share that connection can only happen after the risk of vulnerability. It only happens when we've reached out to someone who can reject us, but doesn't. If they are forced, it's not connection.

There were plenty of adorable anecdotes, but the meat of the book rests on just what the title implies. There is an art to asking. The book also dives pretty deeply into the art that can be present in giving. Some give, and some do so artfully. There is a difference. My mother has been one of those who give artfully. She has a way of not making the recipient feel shame, which is also important to connection. Palmer sums it up in "take the donut" or "take the flower". I love food, so I prefer "take the donut". I will also have to work on taking to donut in the future. I tend to be the bashful sort that prefers people keep their donut but totally appreciates the offer.

Has anyone else read this book? Did it make you take another look at asking, giving, receiving, connection, vulnerability.....?

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text 2017-11-29 15:22
2018 TBR Continues to Grow
The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World - Grover Gardner,Randall E. Stross
Meditations - Duncan Steen,Marcus Aurelius
Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red: A Rabbi Small Mystery, Book 5 - Harry Kemelman,George Guidall
The Lighthouse Keeper - Kate Rudd,Cynthia Ellingsen
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Jeff Woodman,Mark Haddon
Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist - Barbara Rosenblat,Dorothy Gilman
Monday the Rabbi Took Off: A Rabbi Small Mystery, Book 4 - Harry Kemelman,George Guidall
Amadeus - Peter Shaffer,L.A. Theatre Works
Cosmos - Ann Druyan,Neil deGrasse Tyson,LeVar Burton,Seth MacFarlane,Carl Sagan

WOW! I am going to have a lot of fun reading in January and February! Nine books here and a few more that I have already mentioned. Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow! -- Well, except on the days we are traveling. 

 

 

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review 2017-11-28 13:09
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly

Alright, you guys know that I'm basically down for anything aerospace, so it was inevitable that I was going to read this part historical, part biographical overview of coloured women who worked at NACA and later NASA at Langley. And I have to say that it was interesting because I knew next to nothing about the role of the early computers (human computers) that did all the number crunching before electronic computers were used and while a lot of the bugs were being ironed out when they finally were rolling out.

 

I did go into information overload a few times because I just didn't know that many details about the history of segregation in Virginia and the American South (broad strokes, yes, but a lot of the specific people were unfamiliar, and it seems crazy to literally close all the schools instead of integrating them...sigh). It does help explain some of the things I'd observed in American TV shows over the years without really understanding why things were like that. I also found that the last few chapters seemed less focused and could have been much stronger. It was a case of trying to include too many people, I think.

 

Oh well. It was still an interesting read and I recommend it. You know, compared to some of the books marketed as "science" that I've read recently, there were far fewer physical descriptions and digressions, and the ones that were there were generally appropriate since this book is part biography.

 

Related post:

Musings on 16 Festive Tasks Squares

(first part of the book focuses on WWII)

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text 2017-11-26 12:48
16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square 10: Pancha Ganapati
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup
William Pitt the Younger: A Biography - William Hague
Metamorphoses - Denis Feeney,Ovid,David Raeburn
The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey
Treffpunkt im Unendlichen. - Klaus Mann
Making History - Stephen Fry
Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler,Michael McDowell,Mike Mignola
Risiko: Roman - Steffen Kopetzky

Tasks for Pancha Ganapati: Post about your 5 favourite books this year and why you appreciated them so much. –OR– Take a shelfie / stack picture of the above-mentioned 5 favorite books.  (Feel free to combine these tasks into 1!

 

Inspired by Murder by Death's post this morning, I've pondered over my morning coffe which reads qualify as myfavourite books this year. Although there is still time for a truly great read to come up in the next month (I am looking at you, Winter by Ali Smith), below is my list of 5 (or, erm, 6) favourite books of 2017 (I have not considered re-reads for this, btw.):

 

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.

Although, I knew of Humboldt (and his brother), I had no idea of the extent of his influence on the sciences and of the adventures he went on to gain the deep understanding of the world that he did. I am still amazed at both. I am still amazed at the difficulties he faced. I am still amazed at everything I learned about his and his times from Wulf's extraordinary book. 

 

A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup.

I love the works of Agatha Christie and I also love a good bit of science mixed with history - and this book had all of it. What is more, I particularly enjoyed how this book started a discussion with my mom (a retired chemical engineer) about all things chemistry and how scientific discovery changed crime fiction. For that alone, this book deserves 5 stars.

 

William Pitt the Younger by William Hague. 

One of the biggest surprises this year, not because of the subject (Pitt had been on my radar for quite some time) but because of the author. What I learned from Mr Hague's excellent account of Mr Pitt and the political landscape of Georgian Britain is that I may not agree with the author on everything (especially political outlook) but that this doesn't lessen my appreciation for the excellent work he has produced with this book. The sheer amount of research that must have gone into this is staggering. 

 

Metamorphoses by Ovid (tr. by David Raeburn)

This is the book that has taken me longest to read this year, but it is a book that demands a slow and deliberate read. Becoming reacquainted with the myths and legends of Ancient Greece and Rome has brought home how far we've come as a society, how much we still face the same issues, and how much I miss reading the "classics". 

 

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.

As it turns out, my 2017 seemed to be geared towards a history side - and I loved it - with a mix of murder mystery thrown in for balance. Tey's book takes both and showed how a good "vintage" mystery can actually take a serious turn. Tey loved history and it shows when she used her laid-up Inspector to investigate not just the murder of the Princes in the Tower, but also how history itself is subjective and prone to be re-written for the benefit of propaganda ... and how easy it is to fall in line believing anything by virtue of it being repeated as truth over and over. 

A timely read for 2017.

 

Treffpunkt im Unendlichen by Klaus Mann.

I've been a fan of Klaus Mann's for a while, and in this book he shows how spot on his powers of observations were when he wrote about the times he lived in. Treffpunkt is one of the best books I have read to bring to life the Lost Generation in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Loved it.

 

 

 

Of course, there are some honourable mentions too:

 

Making History by Stephen Fry. 

 

Gilded Needles by Micheal McDowell (I'm still in love with basically every single book of McDowell's that has crossed my path.)

 

Risiko by Steffen Kopetzky 

 

 

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