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Review: Quiet, Susan Cain

quietSubtitled “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, Susan Cain’s Quiet takes us on a journey through history and into the present, understanding why exactly introverts and the skills that they have are devalued in present day American culture. We also take a look into the brains of introverts and whether it’s nature or nurture that turns some of us inward and others outward. She then offers helpful hints on how introverts can deal with modern careers and find space for themselves in a world that demands meetings and presentations as indicators of business success. Rounding out the book with interviews and advice for parents with introverted children, Cain has provided an interesting study of many different aspects of “sensitive” personality types.

I am decidedly an introvert, and I imagine most people reading this blog are too – in general, we are people who need space away from the world to recharge our batteries, people for whom speaking in public is a struggle, and who essentially work best on our own. Cain offers a lot of definitions and also provides a little list towards the start of the book to help readers identify if they are actually introverts – she also takes pains to stress throughout that many people actually have aspects of both introversion and extroversion. This is not a black-and-white science.

I found it quite inspiring to read about how many introverts have changed the world. As an introvert who has learned to cope surprisingly well (I’m always shocked when someone doesn’t think I’m shy, and it happens more often than you’d think), I definitely felt refreshed by the knowledge that lots of other people do better with space to contemplate. The history of the subject was also interesting, especially the ways different cultures handle these personality types. It’s not surprising that more Americans count themselves extroverts than Chinese – part of it is definitely culture emphasizing ideals. But the other part is genetics, and even though we can learn to cope quite well, her strategies gleaned from interviews and personal experience are thoughtful.

I did feel a little bit at times that she swung a little too far in the direction of introverts – but given this is a book attempting to empower us, I can’t be too surprised at that. The other part I (obviously) did not find useful as a childless woman was the advice for children, and having read it I’m not sure it would have helped me as a kid. But I’ll leave that up to parents to decide – life isn’t easy for shy children, and helping them accept their personalities while giving them the skills to succeed can never be a bad thing to attempt.

Quiet is a worthwhile read for both introverts and extroverts – so the former can feel much more at home in their own skin and so extroverts can learn more about life on the other side of the divide. And if you’re in between, even better.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from Netgalley.


Non-fiction mini reviews: Life Below Stairs, Alison Maloney and The King’s Speech, Mark Logue

life below stairsAs I’m trying to catch up on my reviews from 2011, and now my five six reviews from 2012, I thought I’d better start putting together some mini reviews for those books I can get out of the way quickly! Here are the two short, lighter non-fiction books I read at the end of 2011.

Life Below Stairs, Alison Maloney

Inspired by the success of Downton Abbey, Alison Maloney has composed a brief, easily digestible book about the lives of servants in Edwardian England, around when the period drama is set. The book covers a huge variety of topics and, for me, actually made some of the show’s choices more understandable. For instance, I now understand the purpose and history behind the difference between Miss O’Brien’s clothing and the rest of the maids’, the servant’s ball, and even why Mrs Hughes is a “Mrs” even though she’s not a married woman.

It also highlighted a few of the differences between the show and real life, and the genuine struggles and difficulties that servants had. Life was definitely not as rosy for these folks as it is for the below-stairs servants at Downton. The book has plenty of quotes illustrating this, including one of a poor girl who missed her day off because she was so exhausted from work that she slept through it!

Life Below Stairs also has a few illustrative photos and is a brief overview that will suit fans of the show perfectly, but it’s probably too shallow for anyone who has previously read about the Edwardian period.

the king's speechThe King’s Speech, Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

Like almost everyone else who has an interest in English history, I saw The King’s Speech in film form last year and absolutely adored it, so it was a no-brainer for me to pick up its written counterpart. Pleasantly, the book contains a few surprises even for those who have seen the film, particularly because it tells the story of Lionel Logue chronologically and includes plenty of background. Naturally, no one could or desires to fit all of this into a biopic framed around a speech, but I delighted in the extra details and in particular the genuine letters and photographs that accompanied the text.

One thing that struck me was that, even though this was less than 100 years ago, the social gap between Logue and George VI was massive. Just reading their letters to one another makes that clear – and also emphasizes how unusual and important their intimacy was. I found the book almost more valuable for that, in my mind, than for the extra details about that particular case. It’s a window into a world that hasn’t been gone for very long, but which is still utterly fascinating.

Highly recommended for those who enjoyed the movie and who are interested in social history.


Review: Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror, Tracy Borman

matildaWilliam the Conqueror is one of the most well-known figures in English history, and for good reason; with a single battle, he ended the Anglo-Saxon rule of England and changed many aspects of governance, aristocracy, and even language. That’s simplifying things just a bit, but the impact of the Norman invasion on England can’t be overstated. Left behind in the traditional story of great-men-doing-great-things is Queen Matilda, William’s wife and a power in her own right. What influence did she have on William? On the conquest of England? On her children, who went on to rule the country themselves? That is the story Borman aspires to tell in this biography.

I’m not unfamiliar with Matilda; not only have I read about her in fiction, I learned quite a bit about the actual history of her life, too. This book regardless had a lot new to offer and a lot of fodder for thought, especially when it comes to the role of the woman in the medieval world. Borman posits that Matilda’s strong leadership role was preceded and followed by women who expected the same, and that truly there was more of a step backwards after her reign.

For instance, one of Matilda’s namesakes, “Empress” Matilda or Maude, is the prime example. Henry I made her his heir and asked his people to swear loyalty to her – so while he clearly had worries about it, he didn’t pass over her to choose a male heir. Was this the influence of his mother? It’s a fascinating question, and makes the social dynamics that followed Henry I’s death even more intriguing.

Borman also takes a relatively in-depth look at the myths surrounding Matilda and the motivations behind what other people said about her. This is always fascinating stuff for me – I love thinking about how various chroniclers and historians have twisted and portrayed things in ways that suit them best. Matilda suffers this quite a bit and it’s interesting to see Borman’s perspective on which bits are more or less correct. She puts to bed some of the more outlandish tales, like William beating Matilda to a pulp for her to agree to marry him – the world was different then, but probably not THAT different, and Borman’s logic is reasonable.

I also loved that Borman asserted Matilda’s power and influence as both duchess and queen. She witnessed a large number of charters and was personally responsible for ruling in her husband’s absence, something most of us don’t really associate with the Middle Ages. For a piece of chattel, she made and helped with many decisions, and it’s a mark of her influence that she was deeply mourned upon her death. Borman does the usual speculation, pondering what effects Matilda’s “softening” influence may have had while she was alive, as she vividly contrasts William’s rule after her death with those years before.

Overall, Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror is a truly fascinating book for anyone who is interested in female power just before the High Middle Ages. Matilda presents a thoughtful contrast to those who came after; this book would actually fit in wonderfully with Helen Castor’s She-Wolves. Highly recommended.


Review: The English Village, Martin Wainwright

the english villageMost of us, especially those of us who are literary, have a cozy image of a typical English village in our minds. Mine has definitely been imparted through reading, but has only been strengthened over the time I’ve lived in England. Uneven rows of thatched roof cottages, wide expanses of farmland, the rectory, and maybe even the manor house on the hill – it depends what historical period your mind works best in. Our ideal of the English village is more myth than any kind of reality, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still love them, and that is the contradiction that Wainwright explores in The English Village.

It’s clear from the start that Wainwright loves the ideal of England as much as the rest of us do. The book is broken down into chapters concerning different aspects of the village, from those cottages I mentioned to the festivals that the villagers used to celebrate. The book concludes with a chapter on the potential future of the English village and the changes that have happened recently, namely a revival in village life and a determination to conserve the bits we have left for the future. Each chapter also contains black and white drawings of, usually, buildings mentioned in the text to give us a good idea of what we’re reading about.

At the core this was really a delightful book. I loved the way that Wainwright pulled history into the idyllic vision that so many of us cherish – not to remove the dream, but to add a layer of realism to it. One of my favorite parts was when he mentioned that some cottages which are now valued at over one million pounds used to be houses for the poor. It’s this dichotomy which sums up that contradiction; the now pretty villages had an underside which has mostly moved to the cities, leaving much of the countryside for the wealthy.

The English Village naturally also covers the history of the village and how it has evolved through time, starting with the Norman Conquest and ending with the people who are keeping the dream alive, either through pubs or restoration. The industrial revolution effectively ended the need to live in cottages scattered across the countryside, but that way of life was common throughout our history until that point. The shift was monumental, although also incremental, and given that I am always a person who is fascinated with those fundamental changes, I was hooked by this in particular.

For anyone who has ever imagined having a little house in the countryside – perhaps a timber-framed, plastered house with a thatch roof, as I’ve wished – The English Village is truly the perfect read. And it would make a great Christmas gift, too; if you’re in poking around the shops this weekend looking for last minute presents, look no further.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from Amazon Vine.


Review: The Shakespeare Thefts, Eric Rasmussen

the shakespeare theftsShakespeare First Folios are rare objects and highly prized by the libraries and collections which manage to hold them. The First Folio was the very first collection of Shakespeare’s plays ever printed – there were individually printed editions previously but never a large set like this. Eric Rasmussen and his team of researchers have been seeking out First Folios around the world for years. Through their searches and investigations, he presents this collection of stories about individual First Folios, some lost and some found, which are and will continue to fascinate researchers for hundreds of years to come.

This was a very interesting little book about the First Folios. I like Shakespeare well enough but have never really paid that much attention to the enduring physical legacy of his work, although I have been to Stratford-upon-Avon. But I love books and the marginalia that resides in older ones, so there was plenty to like in this book for me, and there certainly would be for anyone who loves physical books.

One thing I found odd, though, was that the book seemed almost as though it had been composed for a magazine or newspaper column previously; for a very short book, there is a lot of repetitiveness, and I thought that the author would have been a bit better assuming people would remember what had happened chapter to chapter. I had a look and couldn’t find anything, but I really wouldn’t be surprised. While there is continuity, it would be easy to pick up in the middle without any problems – perhaps the author expects his readers to dip in and out as they please rather than just read straight through as I did. There is, for instance, a whole lot about the author unable to access the manuscripts in Japanese libraries, and he reintroduces the painting he purchased in a subsequent chapter after he’d already bought it.

Still, this was an enjoyable book on a topic I like very much. Even though many of the Folios that Rasmussen discussed hadn’t actually been seen by him or his team, the stories are fascinating and I enjoyed heading through history with him. Because that’s really what this book is, a trip through history with books in tow. If that sounds like your cup of tea (and I think for many of you reading this, it will), The Shakespeare Thefts is a great choice.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from Amazon Vine.


Review: Rome, Robert Hughes

Rome, the Eternal City; a place where Roman emperors have paraded, painters have worshipped God with their art, and ordinary people have lived. Robert Hughes touches on all of these aspects with his massive book on Rome, which is a mish-mash of history, art, and politics that spans the thousands of years that the city has stood upon its seven hills.

It’s non-fiction heavily filtered through Hughes’s own lens; he doesn’t provide any footnotes or endnotes, so I decided not to take anything he said for absolute truth and just enjoy the ride – although there is a lengthy bibliography for those who would like to learn more (as I would).

The book follows the history of Rome in chronological order, but it switches around between different areas of focus. It shifts around mostly with what was happening in the city at the time. So, while it takes place during the Roman empire, the focus is mostly on the history and the emperors, because for the most part we know a good amount about that. There’s less about individual artists, simply because there is less about them. The book moves on to the Middle Ages and devotes a lot of time, naturally, to Renaissance artists, and then straight up to the present day. In the 20th century, though, we move away from art and back into history and politics with Mussolini.

It also seems as though Hughes focuses less on art when he’s less interested in the art – he is an art historian after all – so when Rome is mostly influenced by Greece, and when Rome is in the modern period, there is far less art history and more just ordinary history.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative is actually most interesting when Hughes is talking about art. He’s clearly an expert and reading his opinions and views on the many different works of art that I actually saw was enlightening. It also made me really want to go back, but in the meantime my hardcover edition had a lot of photos inside so I could get an idea of what he was talking about in the parts of Rome I didn’t see. Reading more about Michelangelo, Raphael, Caraveggio, and Bernini, just to name four, was fascinating for me. If nothing else, this book will make you crave a really good art museum like little I’ve ever read before.

Unfortunately, I do think the book fell down somewhat in areas that aren’t Hughes’s expertise. He also gets very pessimistic about modern Rome and mass tourism – and given that I just engaged in mass tourism, I know that it is ridiculously overcrowded, but still felt a bit insulted that he could wish to deprive everyone of the sights he so gloriously describes – which was off-putting, and right at the end of the book as well. But Rome is the Eternal City, and even if we can’t see where it’s going, it’s hard to criticise modern Romans. After all, their ancestors took pleasure in watching lions tear humans apart; you can’t really get much worse than that, in my view. People throughout history have decided that their era is the worst of all of them; this sort of tired attitude was quite frustrating, in the end.

Still, Rome was a fascinating if uneven work – it really shines when Hughes is talking about his clear expertise. I’d recommend it for anyone who is particularly interested in the art of the city, but be aware that it isn’t a perfect book, and certainly can’t fit the whole of Rome’s history, art and political, in the space of a 500-page hardcover. You’ll find it hard to resist a trip after this read.

All external links to book sites are affiliate links. I bought this book.


Review: Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

freakonomicsThis book is very well-known, so I won’t get into a summary too much. Suffice it to say that Levitt and Dubner use economic theories to tease out the truths behind commonly held misconceptions. For instance, what was the cause of the drop in crime across the United States in the 90’s? Do sumo wrestlers cheat? The authors look at things in a slightly different way to others to try and make sense of the world as they know it.

There doesn’t really seem to be any cohesion behind the book, and there isn’t actually supposed to be. Rather, it’s a portrait of causes that Levitt, the economist, found interesting and worth researching. I did find them to be very revealing and interesting at the same time. He finds out, for example, that names given to children don’t really have an effect on their destiny – it’s instead the economic situation of their parents that is the true predictor. It just so happens that a child raised in a poor family is not as likely to succeed as a child born in a rich one who is more likely to give that child a trendy and stylish white name.

The most interesting of the studies, naturally, is the one referenced in the first paragraph; namely that Roe v. Wade eventually caused crime to be lowered because many babies that are aborted would have been born into situations that would have predisposed them to crime. The authors do argue, actually, that the laws didn’t lower the birth rate. What usually happened was that the potential mother put off having a child until she was better able to support it, so we got more well-off, wanted babies than desperately poor, unwanted ones, and the former are far less likely than the latter to go off murdering people. I didn’t actually find this controversial at all, but maybe because I’m young, liberal, and have had similar stories before.

Freakonomics is worth the read if you have the opportunity, as it does alter slightly the way we embrace problems, but given how much of it has seeped into public awareness, it’s perhaps not as important to read now as it was six years ago. Regardless, I would recommend it, if only for the trivia you’ll spout after reading it (did you know swimming pools are more dangerous to children than guns? I didn’t either).

All external books links are affiliate links. I borrowed this book.


Review: The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan

the glitter and the goldI mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was my hypothetical first historical fiction subject, and before I went anywhere I thought I’d best read what she herself wrote about her life. After all, there are only gaps to fill if the actual woman herself didn’t write about every last detail, and the best source for someone’s life is themselves. Luckily, I found lots of gaps to fill, but I also was pleased to discover that Consuelo is as fascinating as I’d hoped.

Married off at just eighteen to the duke of Marlborough, Consuelo left everything she knew behind to join the British aristocracy – her American money funding the upkeep of Blenheim Palace and the lifestyle of the wealthy. In exchange, however, Consuelo was desperately unhappy, as her mother had forced her to leave behind the man she loved in order to make her daughter a duchess. A fascinating account of turn-of-the-century life, Consuelo’s struggle to find the happiness she deserved is inspiring and well-worth reading.

While there are certainly emotional gaps here – the author shares very very little about either of her marriages, surely topics she didn’t really want to share, nor does she discuss her children – this is a full picture of a life. Consuelo makes reference to the many famous people she met and hosted, some which are recognizable and others which are not, and gives us a really full account of life that people of her social class lived at the time. The first part of the book, when she is forced to leave New York even though she has an agreement with a certain Mr. X, is by far the most moving and interesting – afterwards she gets swept up in a social swirl and there is much less drama mentioned. I suspect she didn’t want to dwell on an unhappy marriage, so instead moves smoothly past to a world in which she has more control, even if it’s a bit less interesting.

One of my favorite aspects of this book, as with many others set around this time, is the fact that it’s set in an essentially dying world. After World War I, English aristocracy starts to crumble apart, and World War II changed Europe forever. Consuelo lived through both of these and it’s just fascinating to read about the divide in time. Cultures are eternally in flux, but those moments which we can later pick out as defining – a before and an after – are always those which make for the best reading. That is certainly the case here; the book ends just at the start of World War II, so we’re witnessing many changes.

As I expected, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was a fascinating woman, and her story – so aptly titled The Glitter and the Gold – is one which should certainly be read more widely. Highly recommended.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I bought this book.


Review: Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Elizabeth Abbott

sugar a bittersweet historySugar is ubiquitous in Western cooking these days, but this wasn’t always the case. Abbott explores the history of sugar with us, from its earliest discoveries and uses to the exploitation of slaves in its cultivation down to the current explosion of sweetened drinks and fast foods. Enlivened with a number of pictures and copious sources, Abbott takes us through a journey that definitely is bittersweet, and which continues to be exploitative in countries around the world today.

I’m always fascinated by these histories that take one subject and use them to explore bits of everything else. In Sugar: A Bittersweet History, the main focus was definitely on one thing; slavery. Most of the middle of the book was taken up by the horrors of sugar slavery in many different parts of the world. Like the American slavery I’m more familiar with, even after slavery was abolished, people were still treated virtually as badly with rights in theory only for years afterwards, and unfortunately this sad trend actually continues. I’m glad the sugar I’m buying is fair trade, but it does make you think about the origin of the sugar in other products.

I read this book over a period of two or so months, because I read it on my phone whenever I didn’t have any other reading material available. It was surprisingly readable in this format, mainly because it’s broken up well into different sections. The time periods are organized well, and even the very long section about slavery is compartmentalized into different places in the world. This was actually also very interesting, because Abbott goes around the world exploring the fate of these people and also the determination of those who eventually freed them. The British campaign to end sugar slavery played a particularly large part in the book.

The book ends with an exploration of our current sweetener culture and the origins of fast food around the World’s Fair. I found this history of various sweets around the world to be absolutely fascinating, and the most readable part of the book, if not perhaps the most important. Now, of course, with an obesity problem in the US and the UK in particular, the blame has come down on sugar and various other sweeteners, which may change sugar’s future significantly.

One part that stood out to me in this latter section was the association of women and sugar – how sweet things were often marketed at women who were the “weaker” sex and not particularly able to avoid temptation, even though both sexes (obviously) enjoy sugar. This is actually a salient point that still stands, as I feel like quite a bit of sweet marketing is still targeted at women. I’m not sure I like that now that it’s been pointed out to me, and it’s something I’ll be paying attention to in future, in addition to ensuring I only buy and use fair trade sugar.

Recommended for anyone interested in sugar slavery or the history of sugar.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.


Review: The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson

the ghost mapThis history of cholera focuses on one of the last, and most lethally quick, epidemics to strike London. It was one of the last because this time, two diligent men found what they believed to be the cause, and circumstances started to change. The first man, Dr. John Snow, was already a pre-eminent anaesthesiologist who even put Queen Victoria to sleep. The second was a well-meaning clergyman, Henry Whitehead, who was acquainted with many of the victims that got their water from the offending Broadstreet Pump. Johnson takes us through the history of the epidemic and describes precisely how these two men solved the cholera mystery and began a chain of reaction that would have an impact on public health in cities worldwide.

Cholera isn’t a problem that has gone away for us in the modern day world. It’s a disease we keep at bay with a supply of clean water. But before people realized it was caused by dirty water, they believed various theories, including that the poor brought it upon themselves, or that it was caused by noxious air. It’s remarkable to read how tenaciously people who were very highly placed in society clung to these theories, even as evidence started to prove them wrong. They did close off the Broadstreet Pump which caused the cholera, eventually, but they didn’t really believe it was the cause. Not until the “ghost map” was created – a map which outlined precisely who had died from the illness and where they lived – did the connection finally become established between the pump and the outbreak.

In history terms, this is a very compelling book; the end is full of notes and I certainly was keen to learn more after reading. Unfortunately, close to the end, the author starts to go off on some mysterious tangents that become less related to the actual history of the outbreak. He goes on about the new threats to cities, including things like terrorism, and even the advantages and whether they outweigh the risks. It all felt a bit unrelated. It was as though he was trying to connect the history with the modern day, but he didn’t particularly succeed for most of it; the only interesting bit out of this was when he discussed the threats of cholera now, rather than the various other aspects of city life. After all, while cholera did happen because of the cramped conditions in cities, I felt like the rest of the book was more about the illness and general sanitary conditions and less about the city.

Anyway, I still found The Ghost Map to be a very good, and quick, read, a thoughtful look into the sanitary conditions of Victorian London and an illness which still has an effect on many parts of the world today.

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