Elizabeth is one of my heroes. (Nay, not a heroine - as Elizabeth called herself a prince, so I will call her a hero.) Thus, I have read a lot of Eliz...moreElizabeth is one of my heroes. (Nay, not a heroine - as Elizabeth called herself a prince, so I will call her a hero.) Thus, I have read a lot of Elizabethan history, especially in my formative years. One of my favorite individuals from the vast cast of characters surrounding Elizabeth was always Walsingham - there was something of the quiet mastermind, skulking-in-shadows sort of aura to him, a view which was slightly inaccurately magnified in the movie Elizabeth. I was delighted, therefore, to find a book bringing light to this otherwise somewhat obscure figure.
I always had the idea that Walsingham was of prime importance to the success of Elizabeth's reign.So much credit goes to Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and though it is largely due, it occludes the achievements of Sir Walsingham. Early in her reign, he did much for foreign affairs, playing ambassador for some time in Paris. (Though he did spend some time abroad in exile during the reign of Queen Mary, it was in the capacity of a protestant student, not the wizened genteel thug portrayed in the aforementioned movie.) Later, he became head of state intelligence, spearheading an espionage network that infiltrated hostile communities and foreign courts. He also brought cryptography to England, both for writing messages and for decoding them. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable, the author reminds us, for the lack of formal governmental organization: rather than having a separate governmental division with a clear mandate and street address, Walsingham's operatives were volunteers, people who had other jobs and just happened to work a little espionage in for the security of Her Majesty. There are many thrilling moments in the book: there are innumerable uncovered plots, some of them even teased nearly to fruition so the entirety of the treasonous culprits could be known. There are double agents, religious fanatics, a Spanish Armada, and, yes, one beheaded queen.
It was delightful to see such a familiar historical era from such a fresh perspective. Cooper did his homework, combing state archives, private letters and diaries, plumbing the depths of extant record to present a fully realized portrait of Walsingham. While most histories seem to take Elizabeth's reign for granted, John Cooper reminds us that the Virgin Queen faced many potentially devastating dangers and that her survival was largely due to the capable advisers that faced them.(less)
The work of Edward S. Curtis is familiar enough. As I have described "the book I'm reading" to people, they often don't recognize the name, but as soo...moreThe work of Edward S. Curtis is familiar enough. As I have described "the book I'm reading" to people, they often don't recognize the name, but as soon as I mention Native American portraits the response tends to be "Oh, yeah, those portraits in sepia tone!", or "Yeah, like that old photo of a chief with feathers!". (I use the term "Native American" in spite of being somewhat cumbersome because I despise calling anyone outside of south Asia "Indian".)
I encourage a Google search right now. Just type "Curtis Chief Joseph" and you will see two magnificent photographs of the famous native. One - the headdress we all know from grade-school that indicates a position of authority in a tribe, and another - the up-swept hairstyle and clunky earrings that a modern observer may consider to be an early adoption of eighties style. Yet, in the 1880s and before, a warrior could only sport this style after having scalped another human being. If that were the criteria a century later, I think it would only be Madonna with the hairspray...anyway, back to history...
Like Chief Joseph, Curtis's images have long outlived his name. The dichotomy of his reputation is intriguing - on one hand, he was a sensation in his early years, being written up in national newspapers, dining at the White House, and fêted among New York's hoi polloi of the Gilded Age. On the other hand, the subject of his labors - the natives - were systematically denigrated. Those that lived in the traditional way were considered to be heathen, barbaric and dirty. Those that attempted to assimilate were thought to be of inferior intellect with poor moral character. At the time that Curtis started his life's mission, Native Americans were by legal statute not even supposed to live within the confines of his home city, Seattle, which had been named for a chief of the Duwamish tribe that had previously lived in the area.
Edward Curtis didn't have to take pictures of the natives to "get by". In fact, it pretty much ruined him. He had a profitable and well-respected portrait photography studio in Seattle. Had he just stuck to his business, he surely would have led a comfortable life. Yet, upon seeing the faces of the displaced and impoverished people in the area, he had the revelation that he was sitting on the cusp of the moment when the vast majority of Pre-Columbian American culture would vanish. Furthermore, it occurred to him that recently acquired technologies such as the camera, the phonograph, and, eventually, motion pictures, could capture an ancient way of life right up to the moment of extinction.
He saw the task before him; it was huge and daunting. As his friend Bird Grinnell quipped, it "meant much travel, great expense, and unending toil. But the idea refused to be rejected. It overpowered him." Shirking this task was not an option. He went forward with full force, gathering footage and data at such a breathless pace that left people asking, "why the hurry?", to which he would respond "the subject [is] dying", that with "each passing month...some old patriarch dies and with him goes a store of knowledge and there is nothing to take its place". Thus, "his project would be a marathon at a sprinter's pace."
Edward S. Curtis spent three chronically underfunded decades hauling heavy equipment through the wilderness and creating a body of work that documented what was left of tribes in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, the Upper Midwest, California. He took pictures, yes, as well as recorded songs, made movies, and jotted down notes on the scores of base languages and hundreds of dialects that he encountered - so many that he insisted that "more languages were spoken on the West Coast of the United States than in all of Europe." (This is possible; however, I would consider one caveat: I do not know how much he knew about the Alps and its surrounding cultures.) His record was so detailed and so accurate that modern tribes reviving old traditions depend largely on his work.
The author, Timothy Egan, whose book The Worst Hard Time I have previously enjoyed, did an excellent job of bringing Edward Curtis's story to the page. At some times his writing is spare, while at others his prose is beautifully wrought. While he does not skimp on loading pages with historical detail, he knows exactly when to embellish a scene with florid description, especially when presenting the breathtakingly rugged nature of the American West. My only complaint is that he uses a narrative conceit popular with biographers - he often supposes how Edward Curtis felt on some occasions and attributes emotions and reactions to him that seem too speculative - how can the author know the thoughts racing through Mr. Curtis's mind when he entered J.P. Morgan's office for the first time; how can he be sure of the frustration he felt in his camp after losing his guide and best friend? Yet, this device is not horribly overused: it merely punctuates a few moments of potentially great pathos.
Overall, this is a compelling story of infinite passion and self-sacrifice. Though Edward Curtis's work took a heavy toll on every aspect of his personal life, he found true peace and contentment when he was out in the field, a fact documented by numerous journal entries and interviews. To him, all else was secondary, and he never lost hope when it looked like financial backing or personal trauma might keep him from hiking to that next remote outpost. As he said in a speech in Sante Fe as his project came to a close, "Self-pity is absolutely fatal...It is worse than dope." He continued ever forward.
Who knew that "the most beautiful woman in the world" was an inventor? Try not to assume immediately that Hedy Lamarr (née Hedwig Kiesler) was the mos...moreWho knew that "the most beautiful woman in the world" was an inventor? Try not to assume immediately that Hedy Lamarr (née Hedwig Kiesler) was the most fortunate person on earth. This book follows Hedy from her beginnings in Austria to her flight from Nazism to Hollywood (it wasn't a cakewalk) and describes how she came up with the idea of frequency-hopping signaling devices that were perfect for allowing missiles to fly through the air without detection.
To be fair, this book is also about George Antheil, an American composer of German decent who collaborated with Hedy on her patent. (He was probably not pretty enough to picture on the cover - from the pictures in the photo insert, he looks a bit stern.) There is some doubt about how much of the idea was his, some suspicion about his desire to gain credit for it, but plenty of evidence that he was quite instrumental in implementing a design for its use by considering the mechanics of a player piano. (Ha! See what I did there?)
If you are now confused about the contents of this book, I can assure you that Richard Rhodes quite ably describes everything - up to and including the workings of a player piano. While it does feel sometimes as if the author is trying to cram too much into a single volume - two lives, one war, and the story of a great idea - he does a good job of not letting all the tangential narratives run amok.
In the early eighteenth century, the dissolute heir of a French duchy disappears into the highland jungle of Saint-Domingue. He re-emerges over a deca...moreIn the early eighteenth century, the dissolute heir of a French duchy disappears into the highland jungle of Saint-Domingue. He re-emerges over a decade later, leaving behind a coffee plantation that almost succeeded and bringing with him his mixed-race son. Despite his nearly diminished fortune and healthy doses of derision from his fellow nobles, he treats his son to the material indulgences and gentlemanly education that befits his rank. Nevertheless, the son never seems too attached to the father and strikes out on his own, taking his slave mother’s surname, Dumas, and working his way through the ranks in the army to become one of the most revered and respected generals in the French army.
His time is an eventful one - “interesting times,” as the saying goes. With his nascent military career, the French revolution is under way full-bore. Napoleon comes to power as he fights his way through France, Italy, Malta, and, most improbably – Egypt. His tall stature and swarthy complexion endears him to the leaders of Egypt, and they often insisted on parleying with him. Occasionally, he is mistaken for the leader of all French troops, much to the chagrin of Monsieur Bonaparte.
This story would make for a fascinating and swashbuckling novel, but it is all history, the story of Alexandre Dumas, père de père. Tom Reiss has also done his homework – unlike many histories and historical biographies, much of the information he provides is fresh – General Dumas has been somewhat forgotten since his racially-charged times, and the author had to do quite a bit of legwork to track down nearly forgotten archives – including, in one instance, blowing open a safe in a provincial records office. Even familiar themes fail to seem stale or hackneyed in this book. Mr. Reiss is not at all afraid to delve into the sociopolitical issues that ignited La Revolution française, and I subsequently learned much about a topic that I thought I knew well. The French campaigns in Italy against the Holy Roman Empire are indeed swashbuckling, thanks to the heroic subject of this book. Napoleon’s march on Egypt and his naval battles with Nelson are also thrilling reading.
Growing up with these true stories of heroism and valor, it is no wonder that Alexandre Dumas, junior (I suppose the playwright would be the third) had such a talent for compelling literature. As the subtitle suggests, much of the plot for The Count of Monte Cristo was directly inspired by his father’s life. Though the increasing racism of the post-enlightenment age barred him from following his father’s path, he found quite a calling in letters. History has therefore been kind to him, allowing us to have the privilege to make this acquaintance with General Dumas, a great man of his time whose compelling story would otherwise have been lost.
In Monty Python's Holy Grail, there is a scene in which a man tells his son about building a castle in the swamp:
"Listen, lad, I built this kingdom up...moreIn Monty Python's Holy Grail, there is a scene in which a man tells his son about building a castle in the swamp:
"Listen, lad, I built this kingdom up from nothing. All I had when I started was swamp. Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same ... just to show 'em. It sank into the swamp. So I built another one. That sank into the swamp. I built another one. That fell over and THEN sank into the swamp. So I built another, and that stayed up... and that's what you’re gonna get, lad: the most powerful kingdom in this island."
I couldn't help thinking of this story when I read about the history of making wine in America. It was once commonly thought that attempts to make wine outside of Europe were…well…daft. People tried making wine with European varietals, but the prized French vines were too delicate for the harsh American climate. Others tried to make wine with native American grape varieties which resulted in wine that was arguably drinkable: the most common term used to describe these wines was "foxy". I don't know what that means exactly, but it doesn't sound all that palatable to me. A few American/European hybrid grapes made some wine that had some amount of market success. Finally, some German and Eastern European winemakers in California managed to graft European vines onto American rootstock. Most of this wine was described as cloyingly sweet, like port or sherry, but it was recognized as true American wine, and the market for it expanded right along with the railroad. Then Prohibition happened, completely shutting down the nascent wine trade before it could build on its improvements. At long last, Prohibition was repealed, and American wine makers finally managed to craft something to rival the wines of Europe. The industry is now thriving and expected to continue its growth as American palates become more sophisticated and more capable of enjoying wine that does not taste like alcoholic soda.
Each chapter focuses on an individual winemaker and describes his role in the evolution of American wine. The men in the first few chapters do not achieve great success, yet their efforts paved the way for future winemakers. This creates a bit of a slow start to the book, but hang in there - the story picks up as vintners figure out how to make wines that people will buy. They fight against Prohibition, or, at least, try to get wine classified as a non-intoxicating beverage. The best part of all is seeing how winemakers re-create the entire industry after Prohibition is repealed. Gallo gets a long chapter to himself, followed shortly by Mondavi. The last quarter of the book is by far the most intriguing since it describes American wine culture and how it was completely formed in the last few decades. American wines became highly regarded throughout the world, which allowed the rest of the world to try winemaking for themselves. Europe no longer dominates the wine trade, and the current global wine market is the direct legacy of the vintners who first tried the cultivation of the grape on these distant and unpromising shores.
London Under is fascinating story about some of the things that lie below the ground of the great metropolis. At a mere 208 pages, it weighs in much l...moreLondon Under is fascinating story about some of the things that lie below the ground of the great metropolis. At a mere 208 pages, it weighs in much lighter than Ackroyd’s previous works on London and the Thames above the ground. In fact, I like to think of this book as a grab-bag for all the fascinating details he came across in his research that he couldn’t quite make reason for putting in any of his previous oeuvres. The style itself is a bit informal and chatty, and many fascinating morsels of detail are brought up within its pages. For example, London is sinking; this is why the bones of London of ages past lie enticingly underneath the London of today. Beneath the soil there’s evidence of prehistoric villages, Romans, and Vikings; entire civilizations exist down there, complete with flowing rivers. There are cases in which buildings themselves create their own layers: a first floor can become a basement, then a secondary basement, and then perhaps be utterly forgotten. The bulk of the book focuses not on Rome or Vikings but on the Underground, a truly monumental endeavor. It was begun in the 1800’s amid much misgivings. Here there are fascinating details galore. For example, there is a unique breed of mosquito that lives in the tunnels with the passengers providing its sole nutrition. The first escalator was for the underground: at one point, a man with a wooden leg was paid to ride up and down to instill people with the confidence to use it. In a similar gesture, drivers are now paid for the self-navigating trains: who would have no qualms about barreling down a dark tunnel at full speed with no one at the helm? It is a small thing to do for a system that runs, at points, directly under the River Thames. This book is interesting in its own right, but I am lacking the basic geography that would enrich the narrative for me. It would be even more valuable to someone who is familiar with London and can picture such places as Fleet Street, The Circle Line or Victoria Station. Another small gripe is that the author seems intent to remind us in every third paragraph that the world beneath the surface is both awe-inspiring and terrifying, the stuff of nightmares and shadows and Dis and daggers, but at the same time somewhat womb-like and nurturing. Perhaps he had a chart: I imagine him saying “Well, I haven’t mentioned Hades for at least ten pages! Right-oh, Hades reference worked in!” Then again, I did feel the need to turn on more lights in the house as if to banish the dark, dank depths that he brought to life. It was a fair departure from the conventional history book with clearly defined time tables, events and locations. As Ackroyd ably reminds us, the underground exists somewhat outside of time and other human conventions. (less)
The Cookbook Library began as a project for a pair of antique cookbook collectors in order to showcase many of the items in their collection; the resu...moreThe Cookbook Library began as a project for a pair of antique cookbook collectors in order to showcase many of the items in their collection; the result is a delicious history of food and kitchen life through the ages. Secondarily, it is also a history of publishing as seen through the refined focus of food writing. Although the cookbook in its modern form with lists of ingredients and measurements and clear, precise instructions did not exist until quite recently, it seems that the urge to permanently record our transient feasts is as old as printing itself. The first cookbooks were written either for professionals in the trade or to glorify a wealthy patron rather than provide knowledge for the masses. Furthermore, there was not a concept of dedicating books entirely to food; thus, other household pursuits such as gardening, medicine, even surgery could be included. I suppose it is all connected in the end, but as the centuries progress and books become cheaper, along with the explosion of literate adults after the Renaissance, the idea of books devoted completely to recipes and food became more commonplace. The format of the book is truly engaging: one may sit down and read it all the way through, though one may gain much by merely turning the pages in a less dedicated manner. Each chapter focuses on a particular era starting from antiquity and working all the way up through the eighteenth century. (Antiquity and the Middle Ages, with its paucity of material, is combined in a single chapter.) Along the way the reader gets to see the shifts in ingredients, methods, tools, even social conventions that define the entire food culture in each period. There are several sidebars that give more detail on an impressive miscellany of things – some of the topics covered include: the concept of humors in medieval times and the way it influenced all cooking; women in the fifteenth-century kitchen; the various stages of the confectioner’s craft; the roots of French haut cuisine in the cooking of the bourgeoisie...etc. The authors were generous with the use of illustrations and sample pages from their collection, and they give one the feeling of walking through a museum with lots of background material. To deepen the feeling of immersion, the author provides a few recipes that represent the tastes of each period yet are assembled with modern ingredients and methods. The recipes are even fairly easy to follow: no apprenticeship needed! (less)
In “Unfamiliar Fishes,” Sarah Vowell examines the history of Hawaii. Her writing is pleasingly sarcastic, even cheeky at times, though this element is...moreIn “Unfamiliar Fishes,” Sarah Vowell examines the history of Hawaii. Her writing is pleasingly sarcastic, even cheeky at times, though this element is much more prevalent in the beginning of the book as she describes her own travels through the paradisaical island. As the narrative moves forward, the focus shifts much more to the history of the island and the chain of events that brought Hawaii from sovereign kingdom to United States protectorate. Her account is quite fair, considering everything that was lost and gained with an even hand. While she does examine the toll contact with the West had on Hawaiian natives, she also describes the first missionaries with much empathy. Where I expected a polemic against meddlesome missionaries, I received instead a history of well-meaning people who risked much and gained little to educate the natives and bring the message of salvation to their wild shores. Although I learned much, it seems a disservice to call this book a history book: the storytelling was vibrant and interesting and never dry. Now I want to go back and read her others.
It is interesting to know that Galileo had a daughter that he cherished. Even though she, fittingly named Celeste, was illegitimate, they had a close...moreIt is interesting to know that Galileo had a daughter that he cherished. Even though she, fittingly named Celeste, was illegitimate, they had a close relationship as evidenced by the letters in this book.
The best part of the book is its coverage of Galileo during his period of house arrest and disgrace over his theories of the heliocentric system. At that time, Galileo's daughter seems to be his greatest source of comfort and strength. Thus, Celeste's correspondences provide a window into the psyche of one of history's most famous prisoners.
While the author does a good job of building a narrative around Celeste's letters, Galileo's responses are notably missing as they have been lost. While this lacuna cannot be helped, it is a little frustrating for the reader if he or she wants to hear the voice of Galileo himself. Nevertheless, "Galileo's Daughter" manages to be sweet without being mawkish and is well worth reading. Before this book, I admired Galileo the scientist. After it, I admired Galileo the man.(less)