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Henry_VIII_2722274cOne of my favorite spoof accounts

A couple of weeks ago there was a pub quiz round on the six wives of Henry VIII and it made me finally pick up this biography by Antonia Fraser, that was lingering on my shelves since time immemorial. Right from the start it reminded me of probably my favorite biography – The Brontës by Juliet Barker – in that it was chunky but read like The Hunger Games.

It’s always refreshing to read well-research biographies about women in history and even more refreshing that Fraser’s focus was not on King Henry and his perspective, but on his wives, their upbringing, their education, their tastes, and how they shaped their fate (as Fraser put it, none of them were married against their will). These women’s lives is worthy of a telenovela, so much so that many stereotypes about them became ingrained in the collective mind. Fraser is not exactly in the business of myth-busting (because, let’s face it, a lot of it is true), but at least she’s trying to give these women more depth:

It is seductive to regard the six wives of Henry VIII as a series of feminine stereotypes, women as tarot cards. Thus Catherine of Aragon becomes The Betrayed Wife, Anne Boleyn is The Temptress, Jane Seymour The Good Wife, Anna of Cleves is The Ugly Sister, Katherine Howard The Bad Girl; and finally Catherine Parr is The Mother Figure. (…) These are elements of truth, of course, in all of these evocative descriptions, yet each one of them ignores the complexity and variety in the individual character. In their different ways, and for different reasons, nearly all these women were victims, but they were not willing victims. On the contrary, a remarkably high level of strength, and also of intelligence, was displayed by them at a time when their sex traditionally possessed little of either.

Fraser did really well in remaining neutral without making the book boring. She always makes a point of using references (most from primary documents) and letting us know when she’s citing the POV of someone who was either not present or was biased (and how likely is it that they got it right). As much as possible she includes different perspectives of an event. Even with all these considerations, there’s enough intrigue, death and sex in these lives to make for a riveting read.

the six wives of henry VIII Antonia FraserI thought it’d be easy to pick out the author’s favorite wife, but she remains very professional, and we only notice her personal voice when she allows herself a bit of  sarcasm, usually at the expense of King Henry (all those masons hurriedly changing coat of arms; the French Kings receiving yet one more report of a new wife at the English Court).

Of all the details Fraser gives us, the ones I appreciated the most was knowing what the each of the wives was reading and how these books were both a cause and effect of their believes and personalities.

Have Fraser’s biography of Mary Queen of Scots in the TBR and will pick it up sooner rather than later, especially since I’m staring a re-read of the Lymond Chronicles. I know she’s written other books, so let me know if you have any recommendations.

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Other thoughts: Resolute Reader (yours?)

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4277Who doesn’t like a good book about books?

The Polysylabic Spee is a collection of essays Hornby published in the literary magazine Believer. A reader’s chronicles of books bought and read. At first I though this would be just an ok read because Horny has a very particular sense of humor and occasionally his chatty style becomes rambling. But the more I read the more I enjoyed it. Several weeks after finishing it I still find myself bringing it up in conversations.

I think I’ve only read (or even heard of, or have any desire of reading) very few of the book Hornby talks about, but it didn’t really matter. I was nodding when he gets picky about tiny inconsistencies in Notes on a Scandal even though I never read it (“Would a contemporary teenager really complain about being treated as ‘the Kunta Kinte round here’ when asked to do homework?“), enjoyed his gushing love of Dickens even tough I don’t share it, and was intrigued by his belief that for “domestic purposes” the Trivial Pursuit system of organizing books works better than Dewey. The most hilarious moment was his attempt at writing with a Freakanomics-inspired distorted logic – he starts “On the face of it, World War II and Pamela Andreson’s breasts would seem to have little in common.

There was one side of Hornby’s personality that was a joy to discover: her has no problem in admitting certain books are meant to go straight to a “permanent home on the shelves, rather than onto any sort of temporary pending pile”. He actually buys these books! Isn’t it refreshing and reassuring? Nick Hornby is an enabler.

“… all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. (…) I don’t have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children… But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”

He also goes “That’s me! And you, probably! That’s us!” when reading this quote byGabriel Zaid: “…the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.”

I think we’re kindred spirits.

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Other thoughts: Tony’s Reading List, things mean a lot, Stainless Steel Droppings, A Work in Progress (yours?)

20604350I was a fan of Alan Cumming even before he become a household name with The Good Wife, but this memoir make me respect him even more a person and an artist.

If it was a physical book, it’d be a page turner, but I’m almost sure it’s even better in audio. He narrates this himself and just how good he was didn’t surprise me – I’d already listed him as a favorite narrator after listening to the Leviathan series.

Don’t expect Not My Father’s Son to be lighthearted. It does have its hilarious moments (his ode to Eurovision was perfection), but mostly it’s about growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive father. Half of the book is about his childhood and the other half about him dealing with his past as an adult. This last part of the story is divided between an episode portraying his father’s ability to still disrupt his family and the other follows Cumming’s cathartic participation in the Who Do You Think You Are show. I don’t usually watching it, but by chance caught his episode when it first aired on the BBC and clearly remember how emotional it was (see it here, have the Kleenexes handy).

Some scenes were really hard to hear and made me hug my son extra hard. They weren’t overly dramatized, but the child’s voice was clearly there, all frightened and confused. Not My Father’s Son was really a roller-coaster ride of emotions we take along with Cumming. It’s impossible not to share his joy, amazement, pain, hope. This not only testifies to his writing and narration skills, but also his willingness to be open and genuine.

If Not My Father’s Son was a piece of fiction it would probably end with redemption or vindication. But it’s real life and I must be satisfied with admiration for human courage and our capacity to overcome adversity and make it a strength.

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Other thoughts: Books in the City, That’s What She Read, Boston Bibliophile, A Musing Reviews, Bookfolery, bookchickdiScuffed Slippers and wormy books (yours?)

Stiff_Cover(Yes, I realize I’m about 10 years delayed in reading Stiff).

Unfortunately, Stiff didn’t quite rise to my expectations. Mostly because I was expecting a different book. I thought it was a detailed description of the decomposition of a single cadaver, possibly with chapters organized by time (Chapter 1: 30m After Death, Chapter 2: 24 Hours After Death, etc.). Still think it this would be a really cool book, but alas, it wasn’t this one.

With adjusted expectations I immediately started creating new expectations, but managed to really-really enjoy the first two thirds of the book. It was fascinating to learn more about the cadaver trade during Victorian times and the body farms that help students learn more about body decomposition. But Roach started to lose me on the long chapter about crash-test dummies and I was *this close* to skipping during the trip to China.

Basically, I wish she’d have spent more time on the history of humanity’s treatment of dead people (so much to cover, so many cultures, two world wars!) and less on contemporary cadaver-disposal options. I’m know this is all about what I wanted Roach to write, but there you have it, can’t be helped.

I was surprised by my lack of squeamishness. Actually, the parts that were harder to listen to (audiobook) were about the living, like the victims patients of early surgeries and placenta-eating moms.

So, in summary, fascinating stuff, and Roach has my respect for tackling an almost taboo topic, but ended up with mixed feelings due to strong opinions about what she should have written. #entitlement

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Other thoughts: Rebecca Reads, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Confessions of a Bibliophile, You’ve GOTTA read this, The Book Brothel, Savidge Reads, Bookshelves of Doom, Love, Laughter and a touch of Insanity, The Cheap Reader, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Lakeside Musing, Capricious Reader, She Treads Softly, an adventure in reading, reading comes from writing, Peace of Brain, Reading Through Life, eclectic/eccentric (yours?)

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One of the best of the year so far. I pat myself on the back for having decided to read more non-fiction graphic novels and choosing Guy Delisle because of our trip to Canada (he’s Quebecois).

Delisle’s partner works for Doctors without Borders so he’s been a temporary “trailing spouse” and stay-at-home-dad in some of the world most challenging regions. Apart from Jerusalem he also recorded his experiences in Pyongyang, Burma and Shenzhen.

This is a personal travelogue of his year in the Holy City and it includes everything from the mundane to the geopolitical, from going to the supermarket to his attempts to enter Gaza, from visiting the zoo to experiencing the 2008-2009 Gaza War.

It’s a brilliant book because Delisle is inquisitive, sharp-eyed and funny. He is also highly aware of being a non-believing outsider in a country full of religious complexities and paradoxes, just like I felt when I was there myself.

The self-mocking humor of this stranger in a strange land is the book’s heart and soul, and because of it the though-provoking moments are that much stronger. Delisle’s clever light touch can have as much impact as, for instance, Joe Sacco’s more intense perspective.

His style is monochromatic, his language (I read it in French) simple and conversationalist. Both feel very appropriate somehow, probably because the subject is already complex enough.

Chroniques de Burma is already waiting in the TBR shelf! Have you read anything by him?

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ninetailorsThe Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #11) by Dorothy L. Sayers

One of my favorites books in the series so far AND there’s no Harriet or major insight into Wimsey’s character. What it did have was a great set of secondary characters and a perfect snap-shot of post-war village life. There was also extensive geeky conversations about bell ringing that were surprisingly fascinating. I didn’t understand most of it, but discovered a whole new world and found myself happily listening to bell concerts while reading the book.

The book blogsphere gave me really high expectation about the next in the series, Gaudy Night. It better be good, you guys!
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13481275Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

The latest by comfort writer extraordinaire Sarah Allen Addison, which half the world has read months ago, I’m sure. It’s likely that I’ll always have a good time with everything she writes, but within this, Lost Lake felt a bit watered down. It needed to be longer and more focused.

There are many main characters and even more back-stories, too many to go through effectively in only 8 hours of audiobook. A little bit more romance and magic realism wouldn’t hurt the book either – that’s why we pick up SAA in the first place, right?
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nicCaprice and Rondo (The House of Niccolo, #7) by Dorothy Dunnett

Very à propos, this book is mostly set in a Crimea on the verge of invasion. It’s exciting, complex, brilliant and everything else you’d expect from Dorothy Dunnett. I agree with Helen that the sense of place is more tamed this time around, but on the other hand there’s a satisfying focus on character development (Gelis managing the Bank, Julius reaction to the revelation) and a bunch of great action scenes (murder by bees!).

There was also The Letter. Actually, it was just a couple of sentences but I’ll put it up there on Captain Wentworth’s level.

My-Kid-Lies-Nurture-Shock-book-coverNurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Together with Caprice and Rondo, this is the only 5-star of the year so far. A sort of Bad Science just about children. It’s written by two journalists in the child psychology field who specialize in reporting on studies that have gone unnoticed. In the different chapters they slowing and steadily dismantled my dogmas about kids and intelligence, lying, praising, race, sleep, only childs and, my favorite, language acquisition.

“Children key off their parents’ reaction more than the argument or physical discipline itself.”
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Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Let’s just say that if you want something light for a sunny summer day at the beach you might want to skip this one. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon-ish artwork, there is nothing lighthearted about these short stories. It’s a look at the Japan of the 60s and 70s, full of lonely men trapped in bleak lives, self-hatred, family duty, perverse desires and social expectations.

Some stories are like nothing I’ve read before, and just for that I’m glad I’ve read it. Whatever this book may do, it will not leave you indifferent.

So I bought my first parenting book. For someone who loves reading so much I’m not reading anything about pregnancy: I browsed through What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Best Friends’ Guide to Pregnancy, but mostly my partner just gives me the highlights. He’s the one keen on knowing all the details. For me, between pre-natal classes, doctor’s appointments and conversations with friends I feel I’ve all the information I need without stressing about everything that can happen.

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But parenting is much more intellectually appealing. I don’t mean the technical details about schedules, potty-training and feeding, but the ones about raising happy, honest, confident, connected, fulfilled people.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, mostly about how I was raised, what I’d try to copy, what I’d change, and the kind of parent I’d like to be. I try not to think too much about the person I’d like my son to be because it might be unfair to him (although we got excited about raising an Olympic champion during the Games… and what if – gasp! – he’s not A Reader?!).

I am curious about all the theories out there but also don’t want to read too many parenting books. I know the conflicting information can be daunting. Some titles however, are impossible to resist, like How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

Paul Tough set out to bust the myth that

(…) success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — the kind of intelligence that gets measured on I.Q. tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns — and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.

and replace it with the notion that

(…) noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.

I first heard about it in a forgotten list of 2012 notable books and the premise really struck a chord as my experience also tells me that IQ is overrated. I haven’t read the book yet, but I hope that with “success” Tough means much more than financial or career paths, which my experience also tells me is only a part of the success equation.
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I’m also oddly attracted to all the culture-specific books, like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or the French-loving ones such as French Children Don’t Throw Food and Bringing Up Bébé (interesting article Why the French don’t need parenting books).

This probably happens because I live in a very international environment, with lots of double-nationality babies and different ways of raising them. One of the most popular conversation subjects in Brussels is how to best raise a bi-, tri- or tetra-lingual baby (e.g. Portuguese mom and Polish dad who speak English among themselves, kid in a French- or Dutch-speaking nursery).

It’s all fascinating, although I have the feeling that gut-feeling, pure instinct (and maybe trial-and-error?) will put all theories in a corner when push comes to shove.

Do you have any favorite parenting book? I’d be really interested in your input!

It’s that time of the year again: Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. And what better way for a book blogger to celebrate it than with a fantastic book on the subject?!

Reading The Madame Curie Complex confirmed just how protected I’ve been by choosing a career in an area – communications – generally considered safely within the “feminine realm”. I don’t remember ever being positively or negatively discriminated in school or work, but was shocked recently when a marine biologist friend of mine (my age) remembered a professor of hers telling the class that he didn’t believe physics was a field for women.

This fascinating book is filled with examples like this, but smartly avoids the victimization of the women it approaches. They were/are all intelligent, resourceful scientists who dealt with their circumstances in different ways and made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of science (even if those contributions weren’t recognized).

Julie Des Jardins calls the “Curie Complex” the general belief that women, to be able to compete with men in science (and probably other fields as well?), have to be twice better and work twice as hard. They need to be rational geniuses in the lab and the perfect mothers and wives at home. Only in this way can they gain respect at work and prove that their anti-natural tendencies to pursue a career in science has not undermined their femininity:

Meloney [an American journalist who helped form the Curie myth] had created a schizophrenic figure: a serious scientist (a masculine type) and a sacrificing woman (a maternal typo), both inherently incompatible. In the minds of male employers women would always fall short of the ideal, and women who internalized their alleged deficiencies could not move forward. If Meloney’s portrait of Madame Curie was supposed to inspire women, it may have done the reverse.

One of the most popular ways for women scientists to deal with this is to sacrifice their “maternal” side. Not only decades ago…

Even the most accomplished women scientist in the 1950s and 1960s continues to insist that the key to success was to perform head and shoulders above male competitors, sacrificing family, health and sanity for research.

… but also today. One of the most compelling statistics in the book for me were studies from 2009 that show that 70% of male science faculty were married with children versus only 44% of women at the same career level. This is incredibly telling, especially because it’s not the choice of many of these women: more that 40% of the women interviewed regretted that they hadn’t more children, “in their minds, it was still not possible for them to have it all.

The book reads like a novel and I whizzed through it. Des Jardins tells us about the lives of many women scientists since the late 1800s and their way of accepting, coping, maneuvering or challenging the glass ceiling. The biographic details were fascinating, and despite being so different, Des Jardins was able to put these women’s lives together under the same “Curie Complex” light, and create a powerful argument.

She begins with Marie Curie (the canon), then moves on to Annie Cannon and the women who worked at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, inexhaustibly cataloging and measuring stars. Next, the women of the Manhattan Project, that seem to have been erased from history. She finishes with the “Lady Trimates” (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikos) who made the field their laboratories, blurring the borders between science and the home, finding alternatives to the “detached” science we practice and challenging the way we see science:

Many feminists then and since have warned of the dangers of overdetermining gender differences, for stereotypes of “universal woman” can be as troubling as time-honored notions of “universal man.” Sociobiology, a biological rationale for gender difference, was especially polarizing when it grew in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s the question of creating a “feminist science” was rephrased: “Do women do science differently?” And in 2004 new debates ensued in Science over whether or not there was a “female style” in the lab.

The debate is still on and it’s just as important.

Des Jardins wrote a book that is not only clearly well researched, but rich in hundreds of little insights into the women she writes about. The perfect choice for the Ada Lovelace Day celebration.

Credits: Hark! A Vagrant!

Our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been.

Oh the bookworm’s pleasure when reading a book about books! I’m surprised that this one is not more known (only 744 ratings on GoodReads), but suspect that its unusual format might have something to do with it. The Library at Night is a delightful collection of essays about the past, present and future of libraries, not just public libraries, but also personal ones.

The different chapters are loosely organized into themes like The Library as Mind, The Library as Survival, The Library as Order, The Library as Imagination, etc. They all approach libraries within a human context and taken as a whole they form a compelling argument about their extraordinary importance on our common and individual history and what may come.

Manguel talks about Alexandria and the looted Iraq National Library and State Archives, Nazi book burning and digital libraries, Afghani booksellers to books never written. He gets personal, he meanders, he chats and it’s this absence of structure that makes the book so appealing and intimate. It’s like listening to a cultured friend talk about something he loves during a relaxed evening at home.

There were certain ideas that really struck a chord.

As Myth

I never realized we’ve no idea what the Library of Alexandria looked like. No one ever took the trouble to describe it because they assumed that it was too important to ever be forgotten. That adds another level of tragedy to an already tragic tale.

The Library that wanted to the storehouse for the memory of the world was not able to secure for us the memory of itself.

It’s exterior is lost to us, but its power as a symbol, imagination-tease and cautionary tale still lingers.

Manguel’s personal library, that inspired him to write The Library at Night. I was surprised that he never mentions his TBR books. My TBR shelves probably give me more pleasure than the ones with the books I’ve already read.

As Space

I got all emotional when Manguel talks about the San Francisco librarians who hid or altered book registers to prevent their destruction in order to free shelf space. Guerrilla librarianship at its best.

Manguel also makes a very compelling warning about our (exclusive) dependence on digital libraries/recordings. Technology changes so quickly that we cannot ensure that what we’re digitizing now will be available in 50 years. A great example is the BBC’s Domesday Project, that was feared to be lost because of its obsolete 80s computer software.

Still, I’m far from agreeing with his opinion on the internet – “all surface and no volume, all present and no past” – especially considering how fascinating everything around it is: the community-based content, the information available to masses for the first time in history. There is however, something to Manguel’s view that,

(…) if the Library at Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence.

How very human of us, this strive for divinity.

As Mind

Very interesting point as well about how libraries and memory. I often remember a short-story as if it was a long novel and an actual 800-page mammoth can be reduced to only a title and a vague idea of the plot. How different the libraries is our minds and their physical counterparts are!

 

The Library at Night is a book to be read slowly and if possible debated with other book-lovers. There’s lots of food for thought to be well digested. Can you recommend anything else by Manguel? Has anyone read A History of Reading?

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Other thoughts: things mean a lot, The Captive Reader, So Many Books, A Striped Armchair, Necromancy Never PaysWinstonsdad’s Blog, The Written Word, Buried in Print (yours?)


June is Daphne du Maurier Season over at Historical Tapestry, and today I’m guest-posting there about possibly du Maurier’s least famous book, and the one that sold less copies: The Infernal Life of Branwell Brontë.

She was fascinated by the Brontës (there’s no escaping the similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca), in particular by Branwell, the golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of the tragic family. It’s a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills and she saw it as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.

Please drop by and share you thoughts!

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