Posted in Reviewed

“Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War” by Ted Glenn

The Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I… whatever you like to call it (especially since it was ‘great, definitely did not prevent any future wars at all, and was followed by another world war not a full quarter century later) often seems ignored compared to World War II. You can watch Hitler and the Nazis for days on pretty much any television channel that deals a bit with history. It seems to take a special event to get attention for the First World War to get it’s due.

I do realize this may have something to do with far less film footage being available but… still.

In any case, I developed an addiction to World War I fiction a few years ago (Birdsong, A Farewell to Arms, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land – all recommended absolutely) but I’ve never been brave enough to try a history of battle, despite all the histories I’ve read of World War II. So seeing Ted Glenn’s Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War available for request, I jumped at the chance. After all, I had no idea that cyclists were used in battle in war so it seemed as good a place as any to start.

And I was lucky enough to be granted a copy. And I only have one regret.*

I learned so much from this history of a very specific part of the First World War. It was quick, it was engrossing, and made me very much want to move on to more non-fiction accounts of that war.

Anybody got any suggestions?

*and that is that I have an e-ARC and maps would be soooooo much easier to see and follow in a physical copy so, should the kind people at Dundurn or Mr. Glenn want to allow me to read it again, but better, I’d happily accept a physical copy. I am not to proud to humbly beg!

I received a copy of Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War through NetGalley via Dundurn in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.

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Posted in book reviews, Books, Catching Up On My ARCs (sorry I'm late!), Reviewed

“Seven Sovereign Queens” by Geoffrey Trease

This book got me out of a reading slump, one filled with ‘meh’ quality books that were making me want to watch Netflix instead of read. That might seem strange, since Seven Sovereign Queens was originally published in 1968 and includes seven brief biographies of seven women who ruled nations no more recently than 1796. I’ll take what I can get.

And Trease’s biographies of these women were just the right length with just enough to make me want to read full length biographies and histories of them all… in large part because I learned things, and I am here for that!

Cleopatra I blame Shakespeare for my mixed up knowledge of the Egyptian Queen, who was actually Greek (I did know that). I didn’t know that she became queen because at least three older siblings died or were defeated, some by herself and Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. I hadn’t known that, at least in her time, Egyptian kingdoms passed to daughters but kings wanted their sons to rule so siblings got married.

Boudicca This was the weakest biography, I think because it is more like one very long battle plan. And perhaps that is because there is some lack of historical record about her? In any case, she lacks the most personality beyond winning fierce, harsh battles.

Galla Placidia I do admit that the Roman Empire history has always confused me. The names are so similar and there are so many, I can’t keep it straight. But this is the first time I’d heard of Galla Placidia, and now I want to know more about her and any other women who ruled the Roman Empire.

Isabella of Spain Isabella was way more awesome than I knew! And also not so awesome, in terms of crushing the Moors and bringing the start of the infamous Spanish Inquisition. But she essentially arranged her own marriage to consolidate power for herself and only agreed if it was completely on her terms, and for that she gets full credit. And she made sure her daughters were educated to be powerful women on their own.

Christina of Sweden Christina of Sweden’s struggles with identity (faith, gender, sex, and even simply desire) are so fascinating. That she was crowned ‘king’ instead of ‘queen’ in order to leave no doubt as to who was meant to rule Sweden was something not even England’s Elizabeth I thought to do. And then she had the bravery to abdicate and follow her own heart.

Maria Theresa I thought I knew more about Maria Theresa than I apparently did. The way Trease describes her, she is even more impressive as a queen first, a mother second, and a traditional woman willing to follow third. She truly did reshape world history during her long reign over the Habsburg empire.

Catherine the Great This was the sovereign queen I knew most about so the only thing I really found in terms of new information or new ways of thinking is that the Potemkin villages story is most likely fabricated, probably by those who wished to criticize her.

I received a copy of Seven Sovereign Queens from NetGalley and Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Posted in non-fiction books, Reviewed

“Ten Days in a Mad-House” by Nellie Bly

I think I was in fifth grade when I first learned about Nellie Bly, thanks to an assignment to write a biography of someone from history. As I remember, I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder but then I saw a book in the library about how Nellie Bly went around the world in 72 days, eight days less than Jules Verne thought it would take. Nellie became my hero then, and I’d already wanted to be a journalist so she was the perfect fit. I don’t know why it took me until now to read Ten Days in a Mad-House, but it did.
Ten Days in a Mad-House is Nellie Bly’s account of being asked by a New York newspaper to get herself committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island and report on the conditions there. Despite it being 1887, despite there being few female journalists, and despite the fact that she’d have to feign being insane and be committed to an asylum, Nellie said yes.

It’s a little startling how many similarities there still are between mental health treatment of 1887 and of 2018. Some things can be judged and diagnosed by science now but some things are still judged and diagnosed by opinion. It’s always important, if it’s a court case, to have a sympathetic and understanding judge and jury, if you suffer mental illness. In modern times, prison is too often used as a mental health facility and it seems in 1887 that there was little difference between asylums and prison, except that you sometimes got released from prison.

Taken at face value, Nellie Bly got committed to Blackwell’s Island to report on the conditions inside the asylum there. It’s all too obvious that she found the deeper question speaks to the actual treatment, if there was any other than simply controlling the so-called insane, of the people there. And so much of the asylum’s identity was tied to it’s being a ‘public institution’ and a place of charity, though this did work in the favor of reforms she helped bring about, that it’s easy to compare the moldy, spider-filled bread of 1887 to the bagged meals that ‘public institutions’ today serve. Food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and general welfare are still issues that need to be constantly revisited today.

One thing that particularly struck me was the emphasis on immigrants. She identified so many women as German, Irish, Hebrew, etc. that it makes me realize even that hasn’t changed much at all. That immigrants are still seen as outliers, as different to the point of being criminals, dangerous, or bears of illness and disease is more than a little heart-breaking.

The two final essays in the account are related to Nellie Bly’s undercover work as a servant in an upper class New York City home and as a ‘white slave girl’ making boxes in factories that offered horrible conditions. They were important in 1887, I’m sure, and are still, sadly, important things for people to thing about because slavery and terrible working conditions still exist around the world.

This book was obviously, given the changes it brought to the treatment and housing of the mentally ill in 1887 and after, important at the time. It is still important now. It is stark too, for the things that haven’t changed and the things that have only changed a little. It should still be required reading

Posted in book reviews, Reviewed

spoiler alert: The Founding Fathers hated each other…

So… “Hamilton” is a thing. You can’t get much more all-American than George Washington. Jefferson created the basis for the laws we still follow today. And there are a handful of other Founding Fathers we learn about in elementary school, and then probably forget unless somebody asks us “who is on the $1 bill?” or their birthday means we get a day off from work or school.

But do you know what we don’t learn about the Founding Fathers in elementary school?

That they kinda hated each other with an awesome sort of passion.

I sort of knew this, especially since Alexander Hamilton was the sort of guy who would duel and be killed by Aaron Burr, the Vice President!

There is so much more to the feuds of the Founding Fathers, though. So very much more. And Paul Aron lays it all out brilliantly in FOUNDING FEUDS.

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If you ever need a good, old-timey insult to fling at somebody during a political debate (and who doesn’t need an insult in a political debate?), look no further than the Founding Fathers. After all, Aron cites William Cobbett saying of Thomas Paine (English and European, but also greatly influencing the creation of America was we know it):

How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not. Whether his carcass is at last to be suffered to rot on the earth, or to be dried in the air, is of very little consequence… Like Judas he will be remembered by posterity; men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural and blasphemous, by the singly monosyllable, Paine.

And they were friends! (Sometimes.)

But that’s just a taste.

It’s really not surprising that they showed and shared such a deep-rooted dislike for and distrust of one another. Their egos and senses of self had to be huge to think they could start a revolution and found a country. No way they could all peacefully co-exist without proverbial, and sometimes literal, bloodshed.

So if you need a break from the political bickering that’s currently and always ongoing, I could not recommend something more than I can recommend this book. The vaunted Founding Fathers argued in a much classier way, and they weren’t afraid to mince their words. It’s great!

(I received a copy of FOUNDING FEUDS through NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Posted in Books, Reviewed

“Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” by Bill Schutt


I don’t remember exactly why seeing Bill Schutt’s CANNIBALISM: A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY on NetGalley made me think “ooh, I need to read that book” but I requested it. I got it. I added it to my To Be Read list. And I didn’t read it. But then… I decided to do a reading challenge for 2017 (and by “do a reading challenge” I do mean “attempt and probably fail a reading challenge”) and events went sort of like this…

I scanned the list of categories to assign books, because when you feel overwhelmed by something you chose to do you should always make it more complicated. I saw the category “A Book About Food.” I remembered that I had an ARC of Bill Schutt’s book on cannibalism. I stopped looking for other books on food.

It was a good match.

And it became a perfect match after I read the book.

Truth be told, I liked this book so much family and friends got tired of me telling them about it. I have no regrets about continuing to tell them about it, even as and partly because they proved some of Schutt’s points about cannibalism being a taboo that still brings out strong opinions – like my pregnant sister being very defensive over the idea that breastfeeding might be a form of cannibalism.

But talking about books is what makes them worth reading, in my humble opinion. And I refused to be swayed from that.

One of the odder things about the book, however, is that I found the first half, the half about cannibalism in the animal kingdom far more interesting than the part of the book about human and human related cannibalism. I think that may be because the human part focused so heavily on BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and the kuru that affected the Fore tribe of New Guinea. That was an awful lot of science for the non-science mind that I possess. Chromosomes and genetics and adapted virus are just… 

I like history so the explanations, more in depth than I’ve read before, of Christopher Columbus and how he maybe turned the larger part of the Caribbean and Central America into would-be cannibals because he found no gold to speak of and needed to make money on heathen cannibal slaves were perfect for my history mind.

And the story about how former President George H.W. Bush narrowly escaped being food… I did not know that!

What made the still science-y part of animal kingdom cannibalism readable and enjoyable to a lay person like me was Schutt’s jokes, self-deprecating humor, and editorial asides on everything. it made a book that could be required reading for a college biology course fun. And it made me kind of, whatever that says about me, obsessed with the topic. 

Not that I’m about to start cooking up my neighbors. I like the history of it, the clear and logical explanations for it as survival, and the way it was presented.

I am so glad I requested this book and I think it fits perfectly a a “Book About Food”!

(I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Posted in Reviewed

Reviewed: “A Common Struggle” by Patrick J. Kennedy & Stephen Fried

53I have read a lot of books on the Kennedy family, probably too many. Few Kennedys have written books so there was an immediate appeal with A Common Struggle when it was released and Patrick Kennedy did interviews for it on “60 Minutes” and in other places. I can admit I wanted to read it more for the biography slash family history specifics for the mental illness and addiction aspect, which may be part of the reason Kennedy included the personal stories that certain members of the family were reportedly upset with. Perhaps he was trying to reach a wider audience about mental health and addiction by bringing in the celebrity obsessed culture that still wants to know about his family.

It seemed that way in what he wrote. as the chapters contained a balanced mix of family life, Kennedy’s personal struggles with mental illness and addiction, and the wider fight for help for those suffering.

The high point of the book is that I learned many things that I did not know about how treatment for mental illness and addiction moved away from asylums and other horrors of the 19th and early 20th century and into the hope for better lives for those suffering. Hope, of course, is not always self-fulfilling and Kennedy makes it obvious that just because we don’t lock people away out of shame and lack of other options does not mean the system is “fixed.”

The good point of the book is that Kennedy’s ability to and method of relating much of how mental illness and addiction are seen to his own personal experiences makes an uninformed reader, who maybe does not have either of those things in their family – though everyone probably does to some degree, want to learn to more about and maybe, I am sure it is his hope, join the movement to do something about it.

The low point of the book is the Congress-speak. CSPAN can be boring if they’re not talking about something you’re passionate about and Kennedy’s very intense and close looks at what is essentially the old cartoon of “How a Bill Becomes a Law” tend to bog down the whole thing. Once I realized I’d forgotten what half the alphabet soup acronyms stood for, it was hard to care and I found myself skimming. That’s not to say there would be a better way to write it, because I don’t know that there would, it just didn’t help keep my interest.

It is an important book, because it tells an important message even though Kennedy often seems to get wrapped up in his own narrow worldview. Then again, who in the same situation, or in any situation, would not get wrapped up in his or her own worldview? The only difference is that he’s a Kennedy and people want to read about Kennedy secrets.

I received a copy of A Common Struggle through NetGalley and Blue Rider Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Posted in Reviewed

Reviewed: “Harem: The World Behind the Veil” by Alev Lytle Croutier

50.jpgI think everybody is a little bit fascinated by harems. Hollywood and the arts have made it so.

That’s why I wanted to read Alev Lytle Croutier’s HAREM: THE WORLD BEHIND THE VEIL. I wanted to know some truth about it and Croutier’s work was advertised to tell me just that. Not being well-versed in Turkish history and Islam, the key points of the book, I have no choice but to take Croutier at her word until I find more information on the subject. And it is fairly easy to do since her own grandmother had been part of a harem and there is really no better first source than the oral traditions of generations.

That being said, HAREM is a fascinating look at the minutiae of life in Turkish harems between the 1500s and the 1900s, primarily the harems of the Sultans at Topkapi Palace and the Seraglio. Croutier seems as knowledgeable about the fabrics used to keep the harem women protected from the eyes of men to the methods by which their guards, servants, and staff became eunuchs. The research she does for the book shows on every page. I can’t count the number of times I put the book down to go and tell someone a fact I learned that I should have known before or to Google some topic (the most interesting being the Skoptsy cult in Tsarist Russia) for more information. That, for me, is the sign of an excellent non-fiction book.

I want to read biographies of Roxalena, Nakshidil, Kosem, and all the other harem women Croutier sites as women who stepped out of the harem, at least figuratively, and asserted themselves to the point even of ruling Turkey with the sultans. I want to read more about the slave women, known as odalisques, who served in the harem and sometimes rose to great favor with sultans. This book, HAREM, has made me want more.

The only fault I find with the book is that Croutier sometimes spends paragraphs explaining what some artist did to portray the harem and then a different picture by a different artist is shown. It was a little confusing and vaguely disappointing, though I do realize it would be hard to get permission for the most famous things to be reprinted in the book. But really, I want a fully illustrated version of this book. What’s there is fine, I’m greedy enough to want more.

(I received a copy of HAREM: THE WORLD BEHIND THE VEIL through NetGalley and Abbeville Press in exchange for an honest and original review.)