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review 2018-03-09 16:30
A comprehensive study of Lloyd George's life and career
David Lloyd George: A Biography - Peter Rowland

Though often overshadowed by his Second World War counterpart Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George had a political career that was nearly as long and just as impressive in its accomplishments. Born in Manchester in 1863, the young David moved with the rest of his family to Llanystumdwy after the death of his father, where they were taken in by David's uncle Richard Lloyd. Excelling in school, he embarked on a career as a solicitor, though this soon proved to be a stepping stone into politics. Rowland depicts the young politician as actively focused on Welsh issues, particularly disestablishment and land reform. Yet his ambitions soon propeled the young MP beyond the boundaries of regional concerns, and beginning with his active - and controversial - stand against the Boer War he emerged as an increasingly prominent member of the `Radical' wing of the Liberal Party.

With the formation of the Liberal Government in the aftermath of Balfour's resignation, Lloyd George took office, first as President of the Board of Trade, then as Chancellor of the Exchequer after Asquith's promotion to the premiership in 1908. As Chancellor he supervised the passage of a bill granting old age pensions and championed the cause of a comprehensive land valuation as a prelude to taxing the great landlords of Britain. The increased financial burden caused by the pensions, coupled with the growing expenditures on the navy, led to the introduction of the famous `People's Budget' in 1909 and the political showdown which resulted in two general elections and the emasculation of the House of Lords.

Soon after his success in this battle, Lloyd George began his long-term romantic relationship with Frances Stevenson, who went from being tutor to his daughter Megan to his private secretary. She proved to be the most enduring of the many affairs Lloyd George embarked upon during his lifetime. Rowland does not downplay Lloyd George's habitual philandering, and the relationship between Lloyd George and his first wife Margaret is depicted as having reached a mutual understanding on the matter. Despite these affairs, Lloyd George retained a deep affection for Margaret, and Rowland notes that the maintenance of their marriage ensured his political survival.

Like million of other Britons, Lloyd George's life was changed by his country's entry into the First World War. Initially hesitant about involvement, he soon chafed at the government's conduct of the war. As a result of the `shells scandal' he became the head of a new Ministry of Munitions, where he circumvented War Office inertia in equipping Britain's growing army. Rowland states that these efforts to transform Britain into a nation at war were Lloyd George's greatest contribution to Britain's victory, and they increasingly marked him out as the most dynamic member of the government. In spite of his continued dissatisfaction with Asquith's conduct of the war, however, Rowland argues that Lloyd George would have preferred to work as a `power behind the throne' rather than as Asquith's replacement. Yet when Asquith resigned in December 1916, Lloyd George took office as the only person capable of maintaining the governing coalition.

As prime minister, Lloyd George presided over a government composed of the Unionist Party and the Liberals who chose not to follow Asquith's example in resigning. His greatest battles at this time were with the military, particularly with General Haig and his command of British forces on the Western Front. Rowland is good at recounting the political infighting that comprised this struggle, noting the limitations to the Prime Minister's authority even at this stage of the war. Perhaps the greatest limitation on his power, though, was the Unionist domination of his government. While Lloyd George worked well with the Unionists with whom he governed, his dependence on their parliamentary support - which only increased after the postwar `coupon' election of 1918 - left him dangerously vulnerable to their goodwill for his continued survival.

The end of the war thus left Lloyd George in a dominant yet tenuous position. As a key participant in the Paris peace negotiations he relished his role as a world statesman, though his belief in conciliation was hampered by French intransigence. Back home Lloyd George faced a number of crises, particularly with skyrocketing unemployment and the increasingly violent opposition to British rule in Ireland. Though Lloyd George ultimately cobbled together a solution, the resulting partition alienated many of the rank-and-file in the Unionist parliamentary party, and this, coupled with his blatant sale of honours and his efforts to manipulate public opinion, ultimately cost him his premiership. Lloyd George rejoined the weakened Liberals in opposition, but his continued tension with Asquith's supporters diminished his influence in the party, while his dynamic solutions to the ongoing unemployment problems of the interwar period were ignored by both the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

Faced with a career as long and accomplished as this, Rowland was faced with a challenge to compress everything into one volume. Often this forces him to pass over events by noting that the details were recounted elsewhere - a regrettable but understandable device considering the scope of his project, though it would have been helped if he noted which volumes the reader could turn to for additional detail. More problematic is his heavy reliance on the diaries of Lord Riddell for much of his information, a source that most historians treat with skepticism. Nevertheless, the overall result is the best one-volume biography of Lloyd George available, a valuable summary of the life and times of a dominant political figure in modern British history.

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review 2018-03-08 14:42
Brief biographies of fascinating women, ideal to dip in and be inspired to learn more.
Bad Girls from History: Wicked or Misunderstood? - Dee Gordon

Thanks to Alex and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Although totally unplanned, I find myself writing this review on the International Women’s Day 2018. One can’t help but wonder about the title of the book, not so much the wicked or misunderstood part (some definitely seem to fall into one of the two categories, while many share characteristics of both, although that depends on the point of view), but the Bad Girls. In my opinion, it makes perfect sense for the argument of the book, as the expression bad woman has a certain meaning and connotations attached to it (very moralistic and misogynistic), while perhaps bad girl allows for a more playful and varied reading. And it has nothing to do with age (the catalogue of historical figures examined by the author includes a large number of women who died quite young, but there are others who lived to ripe old ages as well). It is, ultimately, a matter of self-definition. But I digress.

This book shares a collection of brief biographies (the vast majority are under a couple of pages long), of women, organised in a number of chapters that group women in several categories (although some overlap and the author has to make a choice as to which group a particular figure belongs to). These chapters are: 1) Courtesans and Mistresses; 2) Madams, Prostitutes, and Adulterers; 3) Serial Killers; 4) ‘One-Off’ Killers; 5) Gangsters, Thieves and Con-Artists; 6) The Rebel Collection – Pirates, Witches, Megalomaniacs, Exhibitionists. The book also contains a brief bibliography (I guess otherwise a second volume would have been necessary just to include all the sources), and there are pictures of the women (portraits, photographs, illustrations), and also documents, newspaper cuttings, letters…

Although I was familiar with quite a few of the women featured (in the case of Mata Hari, for example, I had read a book about her not long ago, although in many others I still discovered things I didn’t know) there were also quite a number that I had heard the names of but didn’t know much about, and others that were completely new to me. I have no doubt that most people reading this book will think about other women they would have added to the collection, but I would say all of the women included deserve to be there. This is not a judgment of character though, as that is not what this book is about. The author’s style is engaging and, despite the briefness of the vignettes, she manages to make these women compelling (and horrifying in some cases), and she is at pains to try and paint as balanced a picture as possible, rather than just present them according to the prevalent morality of their time. Reality and legend are sometimes difficult to tell apart, but the author, tries (and at times acknowledges defeat and provides the most interesting versions of a woman’s story available).  

Among the many women in the book, I was particularly intrigued by Jane Digby (1807-1881), a lover of travel and an adventurer who also had a talent for choosing interesting men, Enriqueta Martí (1868-1913), who lived in Barcelona and who, according to recent research might not have been guilty of the horrific crimes she was accused of (I won’t talk about it in detail, but let’s say that, if it was true, she was not called The Vampire of Barcelona for nothing), Princess Caraboo (aka Mary Baker: 1791-1864), who knew how to come up with a good story, or Georgia Tann (1891-1950), that I felt intrigued by when I read that Joan Crawford (who has featured in one of my recent reads) had been one of her clients. But there are many others, and of course, this is a book that will inspire readers to do further research and look into the lives of some of these women (or even write about them).

The women in each chapter are organised in alphabetical order, and that means we jump from historical period to historical period, backward and forward, but there is enough information to allow us to get a sense of how society saw these women and how class, patronage, social status, money… influenced the way they were treated. There are personal comments by the author, but she is non-judgemental and it is impossible to read this book, especially some of the chapters, without thinking about the lot of women, about how times have changed (but not as much as we would like to think, as evidenced by recent developments and campaigns), and about how behaviours that from a modern perspective might show strength of character, intelligence, and independence, at the time could condemn a woman in the eyes of society, ruining her reputation and/or destroying her life.

A book to dip in to learn about social history and the role of women, and also one that will inspire readers to read more about some of these women (and others) that, for better or worse, have left a mark. A great starting point for further research into the topic, and a book that will make us reflect about the role of women then and now.


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review 2018-03-05 05:23
Planet of Microbes by Ted Anton
Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth's Essential Life Forms - Ted Anton


TITLE:  Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth's Essential Life Forms


AUTHOR: Ted Anton 




FORMAT: Hardcover


ISBN-13: 9780226353944



This book is supposed to be about the recent discoveries that have to do with microbes.  In fact, it ends up being a long-winded, somewhat disorganised, poorly written biography of the scientists involved in those discoveries.  There is minimal actual science in this book (none of which is explained properly) and even the discoveries are given highly superficial treatment, thus providing a vague idea of the importance of microbes but not explaining how they do what they do.  There were also many repetitions and what I assume are editing oversights (left out words and nonsense sentences), as well as some oddball choices, such as describing Lynne Margulis by her maiden surname (Alexander) then in the same paragraph referring to her by her second marriage surname (Margulis), while discussing her first marriage to Carl Sagan; or discussing one scientist and then jumping around to other scientists and different topics before randomly jumping back to the first scientist.  Nothing in this book is new.  The topics covered in this book are discussed more successfully in other books.   The most exciting thing about this book is the cover.


-I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
-Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes by Nicholas P. Money
-The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery
-March of the Microbes: Sighting the Unseen by John L. Ingraham
-Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA by Maryn McKenna
-The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise Of Drug-Resistant Bacteria by Michael Shnayerson, Mark J. Plotkin
-Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane

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review 2018-02-28 19:23
Jeffrey Dahmer: The Early Years
My Friend Dahmer - Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf is a graphic novel which was used as the basis for the documentary film of the same name which came out in 2017. This is the account of Jeffrey "Jeff" Dahmer during his adolescence in Ohio from the point-of-view of his friend, Derf. [A/N: I would say "friend" is pushing it as it was frequently noted throughout the book that while a group of boys dubbed themselves The Dahmer Fan Club and imitated him/quoted him on multiple occasions Jeff was rarely (if ever) asked to hang out with them.] Derf talks about Jeff's home life which was as you'd expect: turbulent and troubling. His parents had an argumentative, unhealthy relationship and his mother in particular monopolized much of the attention in the home making it possible for Jeff's habits to remain under the radar. Jeff was an alcoholic from a very early age and somehow this went  unnoticed by the adults in his life including his teachers. However, Derf says that it was common knowledge among the kids at school that he was often drunk in class and looking back it was most likely a coping mechanism against his darker impulses. Besides his unhappy home life, he was struggling with his sexuality as a gay man and his sexual fantasies which revolved around having total (i.e. sexual) control over male corpses. He managed to keep this urge in check by murdering animals, skinning them, and keeping their bones in a shed behind his house. And yet no one had any idea this was happening. Hindsight is 20/20 and Derf seems to employ this readily when explaining that he and the other boys in the Dahmer Fan Club "knew" something wasn't right with Jeff which is why they often didn't invite him to be a part of their group activities. His parents were too caught up in their imploding marriage and his teachers seemed to have turned a blind eye even when he imitated people having epileptic fits to comic effect in their classrooms. (This bothered me a lot by the way.) 


I found the informative background knowledge on a serial killer that I knew little about quite interesting but the artwork (remember this is a graphic novel) was not my cup of tea. It was the faces which I really didn't like. Perhaps that was artistic license since Dahmer tended to dehumanize his victims. I just know that it brought me out of the narrative more often than not. I'll give it a 7/10 overall because it was almost too unbelievable to be true. If you enjoy true crime and find the evolution of serial killers to be fascinating then you'd be remiss not to check this one out.


The fits. [Source: American Book Center]


What's Up Next: Mine Own Executioner by Nigel Balchin


What I'm Currently Reading: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2018-02-22 19:04
Pains Me to Do This: Memoir is Sprawling & Confusing Think Chronological Order Would Have Fixed
Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir - Amy Tan

I have been reading Amy Tan since I was a teenager. I still have hard copies of her books on my shelf. I was annoyed the other day when I realized that somehow my copy of "The Joy Luck Club" went missing and had to go out and purchase another copy. I have been waiting for weeks now to get this copy of her memoir from the library. I was initially pretty happy with the memoir, but it was a very hard read to get through.


"Where the Past Begins" I have to say does give you insight into some of Tan's most famous works such as "The Joy Luck Club," "The Bonesetter's Daughter", and "The Kitchen God's Wife." You find out that she used her mother and maternal grandmother for inspiration for some of her characters. For example, the story in "The Joy Luck Club" that follows An-mei Hsu that tells about how her mother was raped by a rich man and forced to become his concubine/fourth wife. We find out that a similar situation happened to Tan's grandmother.


When the memoir gives you glimpses into the events that have shaped her stories, the book really shines. I had more problems when the book took on things that I think would have better served being cut such as Part V Reading and Writing and a portion titled "I Am The Author of This Novel."


I am fascinated by Tan's family's history and the strongest portions of the book really are when she talks of her mother and even her father. It sounds like her parents had to struggle to be together and then when they came to America there were still issues that Tan's mother was trying to overcome. Some of the incidents sounded very shocking, and one wonders how she can keep going on as she had with seemingly no bitterness. 


I also didn't realize that Tan's father died when she was a teen as well as an older brother. I think if we got a straight forward memoir that I would have enjoyed this more. I think jumping back and forth chronologically made things confusing. We also had Tan including the same information about her mother and maternal grandmother in different sections which made the book feel a bit repetitive. I outright disliked one of the chapters, Chapter Ten Letters to the Editor. It is just emails back and forth between her and her editor. 


Tan includes some insight into the Shanghainese and what makes them so different. I really enjoyed that she included pictures of her family as well as drawings that she has done. That tipped things up enough for me to give this two stars. 

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