Two of my guilty pleasures are a good detective story and biographies. Pinkerton's Great Detective delivers bo...morethis reviews goes live on the blog11/18
Two of my guilty pleasures are a good detective story and biographies. Pinkerton's Great Detective delivers both in one tidy package, proving once again that sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.
James McParland, renowned sleuth, had such a mastery over his secrets that his own birthday is not known. Early on in the book Riffenburgh addresses this by admitting that for a biography, there might be more than a few inaccuracies. Because of this, Pinkerton's Great Detective winds up being less about that great detective, and more about Pinkerton, his agency, Charlie Siringo (a fascinating man in his own right!), and the cases McParland investigated: the Molly Maguires, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes an appearance.
Pinkerton's Great Detective begins in Ireland where McParland was born and raised along with eleven siblings. While McParland was still a baby the Great Famine struck, devastating Ireland's potato crops and leaving millions of people starving - if not dead. When he was still young, McParland left his home for America, a land not exactly warm and welcoming to the Irish at that time. The Civil War left entire cities ravaged, yet James was still determined to strike a new life - literally.
In his undercover work in the Molly Maguire case, James adopted the name Jim McKenna and constructed an entirely new identity. He lived and breathed McKenna, going so far as to invent false arrest records. This was the case that made his career and Riffenburgh clearly did his research: a sizeable portion of the novel is devoted to the Molly Maguires - or MMs as McParland referred to the gang - and rightfully so. McParland's time spent in the Old West is also covered in remarkable detail.
Readers hesitant to try non-fiction need not worry: although Pinkerton's Great Detective is painstakingly researched, Riffenburgh doesn't lose focus of the story. The book isn't bogged down with technical jargon or unnecessary details. While the ambiguity and inaccuracy does detract from the story at times the book remains action-packed and entertaining. After all, how could a story about a spy be boring?
Pinkerton's Great Detective will easily appeal to fans of a wide range of subjects: history, the Old West, detectives and true crime. Are you a reader new to or curious about non-fiction? Pinkerton's Great Detective is a wonderful starting point with its easy-to-follow narrative (Erik Larson's books come to mind) and intriguing characters.(less)
Let's face it: dinosaurs have been culturally demarcated as kitschy kid stuff - triggers for nostalgia and ironic whimsy, but not a subject to take seriously.
Unfortunately, Mr. Switek isn't wrong. A fascination with dinosaurs is practically a rite of passage for children - I know I certainly spent the better part of my childhood obsessing over prehistoric creatures. That same fascination as an adult, however, seems to be frowned upon and shamed. Switek himself mentions these dinosaur-loving adults are seen as little more than oversized children playing in the dirt.
With My Beloved Brontosaurus, Switek sheds light on the world of paleontology and shows just how serious these scientists are.
"Brontosaurus" as I knew the beast - a hulking pile of flesh and bone that bathed in Jurassic swamps - never actually existed. Almost everything about the monstrous creature - its lifestyle, its skull, and, most regrettably, its name - were human inventions drawn from prehistoric skeletons that actually supported a different form. I had been fooled! The dinosaur I met was a petrified museum zombie, shuffling on even though scientists had shot it down decades before.
Brontosaurus, T. rex, Triceratops. All dinosaurs we fondly remember, right? I, for one, remember that dark day when I learned Brontosaurus was the dinosaur that never was: an error in labeling and classifying fossils led to this hulking beast being declared its own species, when in fact, it was an Apatosaurus all along. Switek also felt a loss and openly discusses his feelings regarding one of the most beloved dinosaurs.
At only 200 pages, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a lovely, bite-size bit of pop-science. Each chapter is dedicated to a different mystery surrounding dinosaurs: what color they were, their feathers, how they mated (cue much immature giggling on my end), what they sounded like, just how the extinction came about. Despite an abundance of scientific info and terminology, Switek has the ability to write in a way that I never felt lost or confused. I didn't feel in over my head and I'm sure that aspect alone will appeal to many people.
Throughout the book I learned SO much! Things I had never even considered were suddenly brought to the forefront and I was thrilled. While I had been aware of certain dinosaurs having feathers - I'm looking at you, Mr. Velociraptor - I was shocked to learn that it's now speculated that the majority of dinosaurs had at least a coating of fuzz. Sit back and conjure up an image of a fuzzy Tyrannosaurus charging at you.
When I finished My Beloved Brontosaurus I was overwhelmed by the thought of just how little is known about these creatures and their time on earth. So many significant discoveries were made in just the past two years alone! Scientists have begun testing fossils to determine dinosaurs' coloring and those images we're all familiar with? It's now known that those dinosaurs were juveniles . From birth to death, dinosaurs changed so rapidly that what were originally thought to be completely separate species are now thought to be one and the same. Torosaurus, for example, is now being proposed as the fully formed, mature Triceratops.
Interspersed with many Jurassic Park scenes (in which Switek deftly separates fact from fiction), as well as a Star Wars moment or two, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a wonderfully smart book that can be easily digested with only a bare minimum of previous dinosaurs knowledge - in fact, I think Switek would prefer the reader NOT to have those false, preconceived beliefs. No longer are dinosaurs slow-moving, dim-witted mountains of flesh. Make way for a new breed of creature: agile, smart, capable of tracking prey. I'm pleased to say the age of the dinosaur is back.
An added bonus is the SUPER AWESOME dusk jacket! It unfolds to become a poster!(less)
With the upcoming election, I thought Election! would be a good book to check out. Even though it's a children's book, the facts and explanations were presented in a way that adults could enjoy it - and learn - as well. The writing never felt dumbed-down over over-simplified.
My major area of study was the Civil War and while I have a fairly decent grasp on other aspects of American history, politics is an area that has never really interested me. I love history and discovering what really goes into the way American government was formed (and continues to run) caught my eye.
The chapters in Election! are broken up into various aspects of the election process: choosing a candidate, voting, Election Day, etc. Instead of a constant narrative, the book is comprised of questions and answers and I really enjoyed the direct, no-fuss approach.
Because this is a book geared towards kids, some of the questions seem a little obvious and silly, but overall I thought this was a great book and I'll admit I definitely learned a thing or two (an 1882 election came down to ONE vote!). Whether a child is curious about how the presidency works or an adult is interested in brushing up on forgotten knowledge, Election! is a fun and informative book that can easily be read in a single setting.(less)
Although I finished the book last week I sat on this review for a few days. Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is the type of book that needs to be digested slowly and given careful thought. Personally, I adore those kinds of books and am absolutely ecstatic I found this one.
My misery is a woman's misery, and it will speak - here, rather than nowhere; to my second self, in this book, if I have no one else to hear me.
Wilkie Collins; Armadale
The book opens in 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland and introduces Isabella Robinson, the 36-year old wife of Henry Oliver Robinson. Isabella had remarried after the death of her first husband and was left with no inheritance as he willed everything to a son from an earlier marriage.
Isabella's life with Henry was not a happy one (her only joy came from her three sons) and it was her unhappiness that led to her infamous diary.
'Dreaming all night of absent friends, romantic situations, and Mr. Lane,' ran another entry. 'Oh! Why are dreams more blest than waking life?'
Edward Lane had been a family friend for quite some time before becoming the target of Mrs. Robinson's affections. He and his wife are very close with Isabella and on multiple occasions their children stayed with Isabella and her own sons while the Lanes were away.
Over time, however, Isabella's marriage rapidly weakened and her friendship with Edward developed into something more - at least on her part. The two would spend countless hours discussing philosophy or literature and, from what Isabella mentions in her diary entries, the two seemed very compatible.
One thing I loved about Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace was that the book doesn't waste any time getting to the story. Things start happening from the very start and I think that would certainly help in keeping the attention of a reader who typically doesn't go for non-fiction. Many times I've picked up a non-fiction book (although fiction definitely applies as well!) that sounded absolutely fascinating, only to be bogged down with technical jargon the average reader wouldn't understand or to have the story start so slowly I've had to force myself to continue. I'm extremely pleased that this isn't the case with Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace.
Oh, thought I, each of these roofs conceals human life with all its mysterious joys and sorrows. Doubtless, many a sojourner in these dwellings has a private history, thrilling, exciting, strange.
Not only does the book have a wonderful pace, but the writing is simply remarkable. At times I completely forgot I was reading non-fiction. Despite the lack of dialogue, I never once felt the story lacking. In fact, I feel I got to know the characters extremely well!
George argued that in women, as in men, 'strong sexual appetites are a very great virtue...If chastity must continue to be regarded as the highest female virtue, it is impossible to give any woman real liberty.'
While Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is Isabella's story, there were a few other story lines woven in and it all came together beautifully. After struggling with his own issues, George Drysdale published a rather radical-minded book on sexuality. Phrenology and hydropathy were two courses of medicine very much in vogue. A new divorce court had made it much easier for couples to end their marriages. Each story line had its center-stage moments without losing focus of the main story and it was great.
All the guests were encouraged to walk in the park. 'I strolled a little beyond the glade for an hour & half & enjoyed myself,' reported Charles Darwin in a letter to his wife, '-the fresh yet dark green of the grand Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old Birches with their white stems & a fringe of distant green from the larches, made an excessively pretty view. At last I fell fast asleep on the grass & awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me, & squirrels running up the trees & some Woodpeckers laughing, & it was as pleasant a rural scene as ever I saw, & I did not care one penny how any of the beasts or birds has been formed.'
One thing I was extremely surprised to discover was that Isabella was an acquaintance of Charles Darwin! I really enjoyed reading the chapters where he played a role. Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace largely took place before and during his theories on evolution and reading his thoughts through letters was interesting.
The above quote was from Darwin's time spent at Moor Park, a hydropathy spa opened by Edward Lane. Isabella also spent time there and it was at Moor Park, after years of spurned advances, that Edward Lane finally returned Isabella's affections and the two shared a kiss.
'All day,' she wrote, 'this dream haunted my brain. "I never loved any one as I did thee, both mind and body," I had said in my dream, and in my waking moments the same idea was breathed still in my ear.'
While Isabella doesn't go into detail (and it is this lack of detail that ultimately leads to the court's decision at trial), she does mention multiple trysts until Edward ended things one day.
At his sudden rejection, Isabella fell ill and it was while she was bedridden that Henry discovered the diary. That scene was easily one of the most exciting in the whole novel. And how it ended! The moment Henry came across Isabella's diary and realized what it was, the first part of the novel ends. Such a fantastic finish to book one. Loved it!
'We can colonise the remotest ends of the Earth...we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world, but we cannot clean the River Thames.'
The second part of Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace focuses on the trial. The divorce court was still in its infancy and in cases of adultery, the odds were definitely stacked against the wives. Multiple witnesses and evidence were required in accusing a husband of adultery, while husbands accusing wives had hardly any opposition at all. Also, accused wives were not permitted to attend the trial, so Isabella's diary had to speak for her.
The summer of Isabella's trial saw record temperatures and with the heat came the stink. I can't even begin to imagine what that must have been like!
Though the journal contained elements of melodrama and sentimental fiction, the judges considered that as a whole it told a nuanced story, rendered credible by its self-recrimination, disappointment and doubt. Its exaggerations and excesses were those familiar to any diarist, to any desperately unhappy person or to anyone in love. It was ultimately not a work of madness, but of realism, an account of the limits of romantic dreams.
In the end Isabella won her case, although she lost custody of her children along with any inheritance. She also found her reputation in tatters and her own mother disowned her. As her children came of age however, they chose to break ties with Henry and live with their mother.
While Isabella's story doesn't end on a particularly high note, her trial certainly made waves. Numerous books were published afterwards depicting unhappy wives taking on secret lovers. Diaries saw a surge in popularity. Laws changed to enable incompatible couples (as well as abused wives) ways to separate.
Ms. Summerscale definitely did her research. I was shocked when I reached the end of the book: there were still nearly 100 pages left! Those pages were notes and references and a bibliography! Almost 100 pages!
I was so excited to read Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace and it didn't disappoint at all. I absolutely loved it. (less)
Sigh. I was SO ready to love this book. I'm a huge fan of both biographies and history and, while I'm not very familiar with medieval France/Joan of Arc, I was very eager to read it and learn more.
Unfortunately, I was extremely misled by the title. The Secret History of Joan of Arc? Nope. More like, The Secret History of Every King, Queen, and Duke in Medieval Europe. In the introduction, the author mentions that Yolande of Aragon, Joan's biggest supporter, was born decades before Joan, so I wasn't expecting Joan to show up on the first page. I knew there would be some history prior to her birth, but I wasn't expecting it to take up the first half of the book. It wasn't until page 99 that Joan finally makes an appearance, and even then it's only sporadically; the story jumps right back to what various kings were up to.
The biggest strike against this book - and what ultimately led to its DNF status - interestingly enough wasn't the lack of the title figure. Instead, it was the writing. The author clearly spent her time researching. Unfortunately, her writing wound up being very dry; she had gone into painstaking detail recording every movement and action of the characters.
That's not to say the book wasn't interesting. There were parts I tore through and I'm pleased to say I learned quite a bit!
Sadly, despite my high hopes, The Maid and the Queen just wasn't for me.(less)
Hagiography - the writing of the lives of the saints - is a curious genre, now mostly forgotten.
Prior to reading this book, I had no idea hagiography was its own genre. I've always been fascinated with the saints and the stories behind their sainthood. The second I saw this book I knew I needed to read it.
Afterlives of the Saints turned out to be much different than I had expected! Over the course of my reading I bounced back and forced before ultimately deciding that this is just an okay book. It has its moments - and Mr. Dickey can be extremely sarcastic and witty, something I definitely appreciate - but I can't imagine this being a book I'd pick up again. It was enjoyable while it lasted, but now that I'm finished we'll be parting ways.
You can't treat a saint as you would an ordinary human. When I think of the saints, what comes to mind are the "replicants" in Ridley Scott's 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner, androids of advanced strength and intelligence whom their creator describes as "more human than human."
Mr. Dickey breaks up the novel into four parts: part one discusses saints and their writings, part two and three focuses on the world of art and literature, and part four sheds light on the beliefs saints held. There's also a fifth part - perhaps my favorite - reserved for the almost-saints.
The major flaw with this novel was that, oddly enough, not nearly enough attention was given to each saint Dickey selected. Imagine! Each chapter (if you will) can easily be read alone. Unfortunately, while each starts out with a particular saint, Dickey quickly proceeds to deviate and instead ends up discussing how society/film/war/nations/etc have changed or were influenced by that saint. There were times when I felt what Dickey was discussing had absolutely nothing to do with that chapter's saint.
Conques, meanwhile, was still without its saint. Unable to get Vincent of Saragossa, they decided next to try to acquire Saint Vincent of Pompejac - one Vincent being apparently as good as the next.
Although I didn't necessarily dislike the book, I definitely feel as though I was a bit mislead. Afterlives of the Saints reads more like a series of essays that sort of kind of deal with a saint, rather than being the book I originally had imagined. Because of the stand-alone nature of the chapters, this is definitely a book where you could pick and choose which chapters you'd like to read. Want to read about Saint George and the dragon? Go for it! Feel like finding out more about Saint Simeon and how he perched atop a pole for three decades ("There are records of at least ten other saints who were revered for standing on poles.")? Feel free! Certain chapters, or rather certain saints, interested me more than others and those chapters were the ones I got through quickest.
In the end, I'm glad I read Afterlives of the Saints. The book as a whole was very fascinating and I learned an awful lot about these saints.
But even as more and more hermits climbed atop pillars to escape the world, Simeon, the first of them, remained the most well known, the originator of a strange craze that swept the desert in the fifth and sixth centuries.
Let your first image of Gregory be this: singing hymns one morning in 580 to a passed-out Christ.
Agatha's torture included having her breasts cut off, and she is commonly depicted as holding those breasts on a tray before her. But the laity didn't always recognize these tan lumps as breats. They were misread often enough both as bells and as loaves of bread that she has become the patron saint of bell-forgers and bakers. And then there's Bartholomew, flayed alive, who holds, in addition to his own skin, the tool used to cut that skin off, a tool that looks sort of like a cheese cutter, so Florentine cheese merchants took Bartholomew as their patron.
She is not the only military saint, but she is the saint of the cannon, of the powder, of the sudden and convulsive explosion. Saint Barbara, who blows things up for justice.
According to the Palimpsest, George was forced to wear iron boots into which nails had been hammered, his head was beaten with a hammer, a ret-hot helmet was placed on his head, more nails were pounded into his head, his skin was pierced with iron hooks, he had molten lead poured into his mouth, he was placed inside a bronze bull lined with nails and spun around, and then he was set on fire.
As much as I love Steve Berry, this book disappointed me. The Charlemagne Pursuit clocks in at just shy of 600 pages. Unfortunately, not a whole lot h...moreAs much as I love Steve Berry, this book disappointed me. The Charlemagne Pursuit clocks in at just shy of 600 pages. Unfortunately, not a whole lot happens for a good portion of the novel.
There are numerous story lines that the reader is constantly bouncing between and the key players’ paths don’t cross until the very end of the book.
I like Cotton Malone. I’ve liked him in the other books he’s been in and this one is no exception. When he was a child, his father died on a sub. It’s not until now that he discovers what truly happened. Enter: top-secret submarine missions to Antarctica, Nazis, Charlemagne, and a lost civilization.
The twins, Christl Falk & Dorothea Lindauer, annoyed me to no end. Sibling rivalry is not uncommon. My younger siblings & I certainly had our share of fights and arguments, but we were children at the time. As we grew, we put petty squabbles behind us. These two sisters are nearly fifty years old and are still whining and throwing tantrums. It’s absolutely ridiculous and definitely made reading their scenes a struggle. The entire time I truly could not believe these were (supposedly) grown women and not 12-year old girls. Their mother certainly hasn’t helped matters - she was the one who originally pitted them against one another. I could have done without the Oberhauser women altogether; they were nothing but ruthless, catty, whiny women who needed to grow up.
Other plot lines include a hired hitman (who actually was interesting at times), the President, multiple government departments, a Senator, various Navy personnel, Charlemagne & his servant Einhard, Malone’s father’s crew in Antarctica, etc etc. The list goes on.
The one thing that aggravated me more than anything was the terrible editing/grammar mistakes/etc. I noticed little things like a word missing here and there (there was a sentence about ‘scaring the hell out her’) and misspellings (singled instead of signaled). At one point there was an entire LINE that went missing! It simply stopped halfway on the page.
Overall it was just an okay book. I like Berry and his books always interest me, but the characters made this one rough. Were it not for them (and those editing errors!) I would have enjoyed this book far more.(less)