Unmentionable (CBR9 #37)

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One of the questions I receive most often at my job as a educator at historic sites is “wouldn’t you love to live back then?” For reference, that encompasses a period of time roughly 1820-1920 and the answer is a resounding no. I am all about indoor plumbing, air conditioners, and not being considered property. This book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill lays out all the ways life was downright terrible for women life was during that same approximate period.

For most people this would not be considered a beach read. For me it absolutely is. Lumenatrix coined the style of this type of book as “accessible non-fiction”, which I completely agree with and am now stealing. I’ve always thought of it as “non-fiction with a sense of humor” like Mary Roach’s books. Therese Oneill is wonderfully sarcastic and direct in her prose, and the structure of the book is well thought out and easily followed. Oneill moves naturally from one aspect of daily life to the next laying out all the differences for life of women in the firmly upper middle class then to life today.

For me, the best part of this book is the way in which Oneill weaves in primary resources, both visual and print into her narrative. While I already knew much of what Oneill discussed, having access to her resources was a bonus to me. So much so, that I immediately passed it along to Ale since she is researching Victorian ladies and their unmentionables for an upcoming project.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

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It Ended Badly (CBR8 #65)

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This book has reviewed several times for the Cannonball Read and is how it ended up on my radar at all (which is how oh so many books end up in front of me). I am a history nerd so a rundown of thirteen historical relationships that did not end well sounded great to me. I have to tell you, I slammed through this book in two sittings.

Quick review: a witty, friendly, informally written but well informed gathering of information that you should absolutely read as a palate cleanser or any other quick read format.

Longer review: All of the above is true, but that doesn’t mean that this book isn’t without its flaws. There are flaws. The tone of this book worked for me perfectly. This is not intended to be a serious historical monograph, this is a longform listicle. AND THAT’S OKAY. Any author who uses parenthetical asides to share personal information about themselves or point out the only time we are likely to feel sympathy for a historical figure is my kind of author. But I understand that this is not for everyone.

The thing that has me rounding this book down to a three star rating instead of the four stars many others have given is that while I was entertained, there were definitely chapters which went on much too long. Looking at you Henry VIII. That’s a well-known tidbit, those two beheadings, we could have moved along. The Nero, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Timothy Dexter, and Edith Wharton chapters were the most interesting to me personally. Eleanor rocks, Nero and Dexter were crazypants, and Wharton just made me sad for her and reminded me I still need to read and/or watch Age of Innocence. You can bet that’s going on our vote for the next Cannonball Read Book Club (voting for Classics with movie/TV adaptations should happen sometime around October 15…)

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Hark! A Vagrant (CBR8 #49)

I’m glad I lent crystalclear the Hamilton book when I had it out from the library, or I’d feel in real friend debt, since she has been lending me books all year. This is another delivery from her, and it served as a palate cleanser between Children of God, When a Scot Ties the Knot, and The House of the Spirits. Yes, I have weird reading habits, Casino Royale was in there too for a short time.

Its tough for me to review this book, crystalclear declined to, not being able to figure out how to say “just go read it, the cartoons are funny” in 250 words (did I get that right? I hope I did.) Since I have a rule to review everything, I’m sitting here typing furiously, trying to explain to you why I really liked this book, but I still only gave it three stars.

The problem, as usual, is me.

Comics just are not my thing. I’ve tried a couple different variations on graphic novel type literature and universally my brain just doesn’t process information that way. I also was never a big Sunday comics reader, I’d skim a few when I could pry the section from my parents or grandparents, but not much more.  Beaton, however, is exactly the type of writer who should hit my funny bone, and does, most of the time. Her writing is a wry, delightful, and shows an intelligent wit and her line drawings accomplish so much with so little. It’s no wonder to me at all that so many of you have liked this book a great deal.

If you’re in the mood for the comic version of Texts with Jane Eyre, then this is the book you are most rightly looking for.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Doomsday Book (CBR8 #34)

This review will be the definition of spoiler free, come see us over at the Cannonball Read June 1 to talk details.

I am, as they say, perplexed by this book. It was like a roller coaster ride. At the beginning, I felt like this:

There was a great wide world of story ahead and it was all for me. Historians! In the near future! Using the scientific method and time travel!

But then, I spent a lot of time waiting for thins to start happening.

And that was not the most pleasant experience, really. I went the audio route for this one, since I knew I would be under a bit of a time crunch and I could listen at 1.25-1.5 speed depending and that would help. It did, but listening to all the pieces be set up on the board while knowing that there was still 20+ hours of audio left me wondering what all the fuss was about, because you good people had already started rolling in the 4 and 5 star reviews.

And then things got going, and I understood.

There are so many layers, so much context, so much world building built it that you have to wait, and then you start to have fun, but there’s also that moment when the doom is coming (which by the way the blurb for the book spoiled for me, not that it isn’t telegraphed a mile away) that I actively stopped reading because I didn’t want to read what I knew was about to happen. It was too much, both for the characters and for me.

This book lives and dies by its characters, and they are good. I look forward to hearing what everyone has to think.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels (CBR7 #88)

I want to thank my fellow ‘ballers for bringing this book to my attention. I work in museums, and I have two conferences this month in Philadelphia. This meant that if I timed some things correctly, and gave myself a day, I could actually go to a couple museums in Philly. Let it be said that after living less than three hours away from the city for over 6 years I finally managed to go sightseeing in Philadelphia this week. Go me! As part of my trip I was able to go to the Mutter Museum, and I decided reading this book needed to be part of my experience. I’m so glad I did.

It’s tough to work in the museum field, particularly in the northeast, and not be aware of the Mutter. They are rock stars of the field in a lot of ways. They bring in huge numbers, most of who are millennial (an almost un-gettable demographic) and they both embrace their cabinet of curiosities history, while moving past it. I was a little in love before I even got to the museum doors. But how did they get their start, and who was Mutter anyway? Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz set out to answer those questions and frame the beginnings of what we know as modern medicine, all because she loved the Mutter and its former director.

In the vein of books like Devil in the White City, Aptowicz weaves in the personal story of one man, in this case Thomas Dent Mutter and the larger story of the modernizing of the medical profession and its education during the mid-1800s. By carefully interweaving the two, and generally sticking to short chapter lengths Aptowicz was able to take the evolution of how we deem someone ready and able to treat us, along with the basics of medical care and teaching hospitals, all while giving us the story of a truly unique and visionary individual who pushed the frontiers of medicine, particularly reconstructive and plastic surgery, and unfortunately died too young.

Most of the book focuses on the history and the story of Mutter’s life, just the end focuses on how his teaching collection ended up bequeathed to the College of Physicians and available to the public as one of the United States’ first medical museums.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Romanov Sisters (CBR7 #69)

::sigh:: I am not the target audience for this book. Quick review: If you are in the mood to learn lots about pre-revolutionary Russia and the Romanov family, particularly the personal lives of Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children and you enjoy immaculately researched historical monographs but do have not already spent years studying Russian history, then this is absolutely the book for you and you should find the time to read it. If, however, you are like me and already know A LOT about the social and political history of modern Russia and the Romanov dynasty and really don’t want to learn anymore about the tsarevitch and Rasputin and are only interested in the four sisters, this is not the book you want.

I wasn’t kidding, this is a beautifully researched monograph and the research is top notch. That all worked for me splendidly. What didn’t work for me is that this book was not actually the bill of goods I was sold. Moving away from the title, here’s part of the blurb from Goodreads, “Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.”

And this book does contain those things, and the primary sources are used to bring new insight into these young women who were often kept from public life. BUT… this is perhaps the final third of the book. The first two thirds of the book focus on the life of their mother from birth, her marriage to Nicholas, and the early years of their lives and waiting for the eventual birth of their brother. Interspersed throughout chapters which were intended to be about the sisters were asides to all the other family members and the history going on around them. This was more information than I wanted or needed, but might be just what you are looking for. In fact, other on the discussion page for this book for the Go Fug Yourself book club on Goodreads (we’re voting for our next book now!), many of the other readers loved this level of detail. And you might too!

But for me, not so much. I skimmed A LOT, any time that Rasputin’s name or Alexey, or a mention of Alexandra’s poor health I moved along to the next page. I read very quickly this way. I need to find a shorter work focusing more exclusively on the sisters, particularly Olga and Tatiana who really intrigued me. I welcome any and all suggestions!

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Five Came Back (CBR7 #60)

In 2008, before my time taking part in the Cannonball Read, I read and loved Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. For those that are interested, that book covers the 1967 Best Picture Oscar race, cataloguing how that year’s nominated films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, and Bonnie and Clyde each highlight the changes both in Hollywood and in the culture. I suggest it wholeheartedly. When I saw via Goodreads that Mark Harris had a new book out, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, I got it from my library and (eventually) dug in.

Unfortunately, this one just didn’t sing for me in the way that Pictures at a Revolution had. In Five Came Back Harris tells the story of five Hollywood directors who joined the war effort in World War II to be of patriotic use, and to document the war. We meet and follow John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens as they leave behind a Hollywood system experiencing both highs and lows and enter a world to which they are unfamiliar. Between them these five men were the scene of almost every major moment of America’s involvement in the war. They served in every branch of service—army, navy, and air force and all theatres of war. They were present at the biggest moments in the American campaign from Midway, Normandy, to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi death camps or stateside in the shaping of the message out of Washington, D.C.  and chronicling the effects of the war on its soldiers once they returned home. As it did for so many others, World War II divided the lives of these men into before and after. However, as a reader I became less and less interested in some of these narrative threads and instead wished to hear more about Wyler and Stevens.

The beginning of this work was simply far too detailed to pull me into the book. I understand that Harris is after giving the reader the general feeling of the time, but it just dragged and dragged – for nearly 150 pages. When it comes to drawing in a reader for a work of non-fiction I often think its best start broad with big sweeps of information to draw the reader into your preferred level of detail. Just because we the reader are interested enough to choose to read your book does not mean we are interested enough to be as informed as you assume we should be, just saying. Other than that issue, and the general slow pace of the text, and my disinterest in half of its main characters are leaving me rating this a three, but it keeps all three because what worked for me worked well.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.