Dante: A Life by Alessandro Barbero, Trans. by Allan Cameron

Dante A Life by Alessandro Barbero

Information

Goodreads: Dante: A Life
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has defined how people imagine and depict heaven and hell for over seven centuries.

However, outside of Italy, his other works are not well known, and less still is generally known about the context he wrote them in. In Dante, Barbero brings the legendary author’s Italy to life, describing the political intrigue, battles, city and society that shaped his life and work. The son of a shylock who dreams of belonging to the world of writers and nobles, we follow Dante into the dark corridors of politics where ideals are shattered by rampant corruption, and then into exile as he travels Italy and discovers the extraordinary color and variety of the countryside, the metropolises, and the knightly courts. 

This is a book by a serious scholar with real popular appeal, as evidenced by its bestseller ranking in Italy. It is a remarkable piece of forensic investigation into medieval Italian life.

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Review

Dante: A Life by Alessandro Barbero delves deep into the historical annals to uncover what we really know about Dante Alighieri. While some biographical accounts assume certain facts about Dante’s life, Barbero’s account explains precisely what we know with certainty, what scholars disagree on, and what conclusions we can draw from various other known facets of medieval life. This biography is one for the Dante enthusiast, the one for whom no detail is too small or too dry.

While I count Dante as one of my most beloved authors, I have to admit that I struggled a bit reading Dante: A Life because of how dry–and how roundabout–it seems. This is not a straightforward account of one man’s life from birth to death, but rather a meandering biography arranged somewhat thematically. It opens with chapters discussing what we can determine about the status of Dante’s family based on such things as where and how they served in the military, when and if they received a last name, and so forth. The prose does not sparkle, however; this is no narrative nonfiction and possibly not even popular nonfiction. This is straight research, a series of facts told in a fact-like manner.

Even so, I found myself drawn into the account because of how honest it is. There are certain aspects of Dante’s life that I took for granted, because it seemed like everyone knew and accept them. Barbero, however, reveals when the historical record is shady and makes arguments that at times other scholars may have missed clues. I was fascinated, for instance, by Barbero’s argument that Dante and Gemma Donati were not engaged absurdly young, but that a record keeper may have marked an incorrect date. That…actually makes a lot more sense. Other intriguing tidbits are also scattered throughout the book.

Dante: A Life is a remarkably thorough account, one that uses the author’s apparent expertise in the minutiae of medieval life to piece together the likeliest scenarios for Dante’s biography. I do not know that it is a highly readable book–and thus perhaps not best suited for a reader just starting on their own Dantean journey. It is, however, an impressive one. I certainly closed the pages feeling that I had learned more about Dante than I had ever known I could.

4 stars

Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls’ Series ed. by Sherrie A. Inness

Nancy Drew and Company

Information

GoodreadsNancy Drew and Company
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 1997

Summary

This anthology includes critical essays on various girls’ series from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books to Cherry Ames, Nancy Drew, and Judy Bolton. Lesser-known works such as the Linda Lane and Isabel Carleton books are also covered.

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Review

Nancy Drew and Company, published in 1997, argues that the girls’ (and children’s) literature, though long overlooked by the academy, deserve to be serious objects of literary study. Through such literature, Sherrie A. Inness asserts, we can gain a greater understanding of our history, both in how it is depicted in popular literature, but also through the ways in which literature seeks to shape history. Girls’ series provide role models for readers that can simultaneously challenge and reinforce class, gender, and social roles. Thus, these books reveal, as Inness argues, “our culture’s values, mores, and biases” (10). The essays in this book explore a variety of girls’ series, from more popular books such as Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, to some lesser-known series such as the Linda Lane and Isabel Carleton books. Each essay opens a window into how literature works to shape society’s understanding of womanhood.

If there is any recurring theme that seems to link all the essays in Nancy Drew and Company it is that girls’ series often sought–usually unsuccessfully–to balance new ideals of womanhood with old ones. That is, even as these series asserted girls’ independence, assertiveness, and agency, they sought to convince readers that the protagonists were not interested in changing the status quo. Automobile girls might drive across the country seeking adventure, but they were also still concerned about appearing feminine and dating boys. They might be mistaken for suffragettes, but they were quick to tell everyone that their motives were not political. In the same way, many of the other heroines of girls’ series tried to balance domesticity or motherhood with their independence, creating contradictions that were never fully resolved.

These contradictions, however, are possibly what helped to make such series so successful. No matter what a reader was looking for in a heroine–assertion or passivity, independence or romance, adventure or domesticity–these qualities could be found in girls’ series. My own theory is that many modern adaptations of Nancy Drew have failed because they do not match up with readers’ expectations. And readers’ expectations can be vastly different precisely because of the way the original books are written. Some readers might laud the feminist bent of Nancy Drew, while others appreciate her old-fashioned values. Nancy Drew is a contradiction–something contemporary adaptors have to grapple with.

Nancy Drew and Company relies on the fame and popularity of Nancy Drew to lure in readers, but all the essays included are thought-provoking and fascinating. The book will have readers rethinking old favorites, but will also introduce them to many more interesting pieces of girls’ literature that have hitherto faded into history.

4 stars

The Real J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created Middle-earth by Jesse Xander (Guest Review by Rosie Amber)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting several days of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


Real JRR Tolkien Book Cover

Official Summary

The Real JRR Tolkien: The Man Who Created Middle Earth is a comprehensive biography of the linguist and writer; taking the reader from his formative years of home-schooling, through the spires of Oxford, to his romance with his wife-to-be on the brink of war, and onwards into his phenomenal academic success and his creation of the seminal high fantasy world of Middle Earth. “The Real JRR Tolkien” delves into his influences, places, friendships, triumphs and tragedies, with particular emphasis on how his remarkable life and loves forged the worlds of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Using contemporary sources and comprehensive research, “The Real JRR Tolkien” offers a unique insight into the life and times of one of Britain’s greatest authors, from cradle to grave to legacy. 

Review

Jesse Xander believes that much of the success of Tolkien’s writing is because of its believability, which Xander suggests is due to the way Tolkien immersed himself totally in the worlds he created. Xander shows the author’s complexities, his beliefs and ideologies, giving his audience insight into the man behind the books. Secondly, Xander goes on to consider the inspirations for Middle-earth.

Tolkien said: “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science, but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind.”

Xander has a passion for the world of Middle-earth, understanding how the communities, histories and languages of the inhabitants were considered on an anthropological scale. Once Xander saw the whole picture it was easier to fully appreciate Tolkien’s work.

The book begins with Tolkien’s early years: his birth in South Africa and the history behind the name John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Xander suggests that the recurring theme of multiple names for Tolkien’s characters may have stemmed from the many different names that family and friends knew him by over the years. Xander discovered that Tolkien’s relatives, many of whom were lovers of storytelling, may have influenced his need to create fiction.

In 1896, Tolkien’s mother moved her family to the village of Sarehole; at an impressionable age, Tolkien is said to have found himself in the “heart of the English countryside.”

Jumping ahead to the summer before Tolkien went to Oxford University, his aunt took him and his younger brother on a trip to Europe, part of which involved trekking in Switzerland through mountains and valleys and a visit to the Aletsch Glacier. Some of the locations from this trip were some of the real places that inspired his work. There is also the suggestion that the all-male world of Oxford University may have been reflected in Tolkien’s works; as Xander said,  “Many of the women in Middle-earth are noted by their absence.”  A side discussion considers the following:

“Hobbit women appear either as deceased rebels, redeemable crones or love interests with barely anything documented about them.”

I was very interested in Tolkien’s background knowledge of ancient languages and dialects and how this evolved through his time in academia. While at Oxford, he was encouraged by one of his professors to study the Celtic languages; he began with ancient Welsh, and his love of languages became a part of his writing, for example the Elven script. I also liked how the author linked events and experiences with such detail from Tolkien’s writing, giving a clear picture of his influences.

There are a few black and white photographs to break up the writing, which were just enough to leave me with some images in my mind of the author. There is, however, much more in this book as it follows Tolkien’s life, family, friendships and his written works. I found the book interesting as previously I knew only the author’s name and very little else, while Xander offers some fascinating discussion topics which fans of Tolkien might like to consider.

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I was brought up in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. I started blogging to combine a love of reading with a desire to embrace social technology; since then it’s developed into a passion to introduce avid readers to new writers, and offer a platform for little-known talent. Visit Rosie Amber’s blog here.

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Liz Rosenberg, Ill. by Diana Sudyka

Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsSorrows, Scribbles, & Russet Leather Boots
Series: None
Age Category: Upper Middle Grade/Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary


Moody and restless, teenage Louisa longed for freedom. Faced with the expectations of her loving but hapless family, the Alcotts, and of nineteenth-century New England society, Louisa struggled to find her place. On long meandering runs through the woods behind Orchard House, she thought about a future where she could write and think and dream. Undaunted by periods of abject poverty and enriched by friendships with some of the greatest minds of her time and place, she was determined to have this future, no matter the cost.

Drawing on the surviving journals and letters of Louisa and her family and friends, author and poet Liz Rosenberg reunites Louisa May Alcott with her most ardent readers. In this warm and sometimes heartbreaking biography, Rosenberg delves deep into the oftentimes secretive life of a woman who was ahead of her time, imbued with social conscience, and always moving toward her future with a determination that would bring her fame, tragedy, and the realization of her biggest dreams.

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Review

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots brings the author of Little Women to life for a new generation of readers. With its younger audience in mind, the book attempts to balance the tribulations of Louisa May Alcott’s life with the moments of joy she found in her family, her vacations, and her career. The biography feels comprehensive without feeling overly detailed or too long. Fans of Little Women will not want to miss this insider’s look at the real-life Jo March.

Louisa May Alcott’s life is compelling in large part because it feels so contradictory. Alcott grew up in a poor household with a transcendentalist father who cared more for his ideals than for feeding and housing his family. Louisa went to work at a young age to help keep the family afloat, and she never did stop caring for her parents. When she died, she was still busy supporting her widowed older sister Anna, Anna’s two sons, her invalid father, and her deceased sister’s daughter Lulu. She did this while suffering from the effects of what many consider to be mercury poisoning–the result of the calomel treatment she received for the typhoid fever she caught while working as a Union Army nurse. And yet, Alcott never stopped loving her family and even seemed to cherish her time growing up. Her appreciation for her family and many of the freedoms she enjoyed are evident in her fictionalized account of her formative years in Little Women.

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots pulls back the curtain on Alcott’s life, however, showing just how bleak it could sometimes be. Like Jo, Alcott often felt lonely, overworked, and jealous of the lives of her sisters–Anna with her comfortable home and May with her ability to travel abroad and pursue her artistic interests. When trouble arrived, the family always looked to Louisa to fix things. Glimpses of potential romances Alcott may or may not have had make the store even more bittersweet. “Couldn’t be!” Louisa wrote of one Polish boy she met, and tore out the journal entries about their time together before she died. Louisa’s first duty always seemed to be to her family, and it seems that, even though they recognized her failing health, they did not do much to lighten her burdens.

This combination of good times with the bad is what makes Alcott’s story so poignant. And Liz Rosenberg effectively highlights the contradictions, even as she perhaps makes them a bit more palatable for her audience. What Rosenberg does most effectively, however, is highlight just how remarkable Alcott was–a true visionary, dedicated to abolitionism, women’s rights, and the poor. Alcott was generous with her money, too, generously funding the causes she advocated for, always trying to be of practical use (unlike her philosophizing father and his friends). This side of Alcott–radical social reformer–is not one readers often associate with the author.

The biggest flaw of Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots is that it lacks any period photographs, instead including illustrations from Diana Sudkya. The illustrations are utterly charming (though they feel a bit young for the subject matter and intended audience). They are not, however, the same as actual photographs of Louisa and her family, and I found myself searching for these after I finished the book. Historical photographs and sketches give a lot more context, showing how haggard Alcott looked as her health failed her, and giving more weight and sorrow to her story. I was also fascinated by some of May Alcott’s artistic works, which are referenced in the book, but, again, not included as photographs.

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots will appeal to fans of Louisa May Alcott and her work. It is a highly readable and engaging biography that details the sorrows of Alcott’s life without getting bogged down in them. A wonderful way to introduce new fans to her work, as well.

4 stars

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink (Mini Review)

Information

Goodreads: When
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: January 9, 2018

Official Summary

Everyone knows that timing is everything. But we don’t know much about timing itself. Our lives are a never-ending stream of “when” decisions: when to start a business, schedule a class, get serious about a person. Yet we make those decisions based on intuition and guesswork.

Timing, it’s often assumed, is an art. In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink shows that timing is really a science.

Drawing on a rich trove of research from psychology, biology, and economics, Pink reveals how best to live, work, and succeed. How can we use the hidden patterns of the day to build the ideal schedule? Why do certain breaks dramatically improve student test scores? How can we turn a stumbling beginning into a fresh start? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? Why is singing in time with other people as good for you as exercise? And what is the ideal time to quit a job, switch careers, or get married?

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Review

Unfortunately, this book simply is not as interesting as I was hoping it would be, nor as memorable. I decided to write a mini review rather than a full review because I waited too long after finishing the book to write down my thoughts, and I found that I couldn’t recall much about the book in general, not a fascinating anecdote that caught my attention and not anything useful from the book I can think to apply to my own life.

I also agree with what other reviewers have noted about a lot of the information in When not being new, like that employees perform better when they are given breaks, kids do better at school when allowed to have recess recess, teens get into fewer car accidents when high school starts later, etc. However, considering the U.S. has acted on basically NONE of this “old” information, it probably bears repeating. Perhaps one day we will have better laws mandating breaks for employees, recess for all students, etc., but that day is not this day.

If one is really interested in this topic and hasn’t read much about it before, this book might be worth a look, but otherwise I think readers can pass.

Briana
3 Stars

I Left My Homework in the Hamptons: What I Learned Teaching the Children of the One Percent by Blythe Grossberg

Information

Goodreads: I Left My Homework in the Hamptons
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: August 17, 2021

Official Summary

A captivating memoir about tutoring for Manhattan’s elite, revealing how a life of extreme wealth both helps and harms the children of the one percent.

Ben orders daily room service while living in a five-star hotel. Olivia collects luxury brand sneakers worn by celebrities. Dakota jets off to Rome when she needs to avoid drama at school.

Welcome to the inner circle of New York’s richest families, where academia is an obsession, wealth does nothing to soothe status anxiety and parents will try just about anything to gain a competitive edge in the college admissions rat race.

When Blythe Grossberg first started as a tutor and learning specialist, she had no idea what awaited her inside the high-end apartments of Fifth Avenue. Children are expected to be as efficient and driven as CEOs, starting their days with 5:00 a.m. squash practice and ending them with late-night tutoring sessions. Meanwhile, their powerful parents will do anything to secure one of the precious few spots at the Ivy Leagues, whatever the cost to them or their kids.

Through stories of the children she tutors that are both funny and shocking, Grossberg shows us the privileged world of America’s wealthiest families and the systems in place that help them stay on top.

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Review

I was hoping this book would be interesting because, hey, who doesn’t like reading about the lives of the rich and all the things they can buy that the rest of us will never be able to afford? Unfortunately, the book didn’t tell me anything about rich students attending wildly expensive high schools that I didn’t already know (from having attended college with many of these people, from knowing people who taught or interviewed to teach at these schools, from reading in general, etc.). So there was nothing novel to catch my attention, and things went downhill from there.

For one, the author seems uncertain of who her audience is. The title of the book suggests the audience is the, well, not 1%, that this book is going to give us plebeians a glance into a world we’re excluded from. However, the author vacillates between discussing her students and their families like oddities of interest for the rest of us and sounding as if she’s appealing directly to the parents of these students, asking them to consider the kids’ needs and mental health.

She also can’t seem to decide whether she’s sympathetic towards these kids or not, and I think part of the issue is, well, maybe she’s not sympathetic but she wants to sound as if she is in case someone she tutors/tutored does read the book. However, I think the average reader will not be impressed by the attempts to make it sound as if all is not sunshine and roses for these students. It’s the usual deal: they’re under a lot of pressure; their classes are so hard at their exclusive, competitive prep schools; their parents overschedule them for extracurriculars, etc. And because of all this, they’re more likely to do things like abuse drugs.

But the problem is that 1) a lot of people would like to have these “problems” and be signed up for sports and music classes and foreign languages and have 10 tutors to help them with school, 2) the problems are easy to solve and entirely of their own making (i.e. If your kid is stressed and only sleeping 4 hours a night, unenroll them from some activities!), and 3) the book is very clear that the parents just buy their kids out of a lot of problems anyway (getting them accommodations, arguing with the schools till their kids get an A on a paper, donating money to colleges to get an acceptance). I just couldn’t really feel sorry for these kids even with their over-the-top parents, and I don’t think the author truly does either.

Finally, the tone of the book grated on me because the author frequently implies she’s the only person who really understands these kids and can teach them properly (even while she’s also admitting to snooping on them and Googling them and looking at photos of their summer homes to “help her understand and tutor them better”). She accuses other tutors of just doing the kids’ homework (true in some cases, of course). She accuses the parents alternately of being absent or of being overly involved. She characterizes the teachers at their schools as people with PhDs who might be personally smart but can’t actually teach or convey the material clearly to save their lives. I assume she actually is good at tutoring or she wouldn’t have so many clients, but the constant implications no one else was good at their jobs annoyed me.

So, I got nothing out of this. It’s repetitive and a bit dull, and the author irritated me on a personal level, which isn’t something I often say in reviews. That is, I really didn’t like her. Perhaps she is perfectly lovely in person, but she doesn’t come across that way in the writing here, and I think that’s a downside in a book that’s in large part a memoir.

Briana
2 star review

Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell

Unearthing the Secret Garden Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Unearthing the Secret Garden
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: October 2021

Official Summary

New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell has revealed the way that plants have stirred some of our most cherished authors, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her latest, she shares a moving account of how gardening deeply inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the beloved children’s classic The Secret Garden.
 
In Unearthing The Secret Garden, best-selling author Marta McDowell delves into the professional and gardening life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Complementing her fascinating account with charming period photographs and illustrations, McDowell paints an unforgettable portrait of a great artist and reminds us why The Secret Garden continues to touch readers after more than a century. This deeply moving and gift-worthy book is a must-read for fans of The Secret Garden and anyone who loves the story behind the story.

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Review

I was not sure what to expect when I opened Unearthing the Secret Garden. I hoped for something like an account of the gardens Frances Hodgson Burnett knew, and how they inspired her. I also hoped for a book that is, well, as enchanting as Burnett’s own. Unearthing the Secret Garden does talk about some of Burnett’s gardens, but in an almost clinical way, listing plants and colors she liked to grow. And about half the book is not about Burnett, but some of Burnett’s lesser-known writings on gardening. These proved the most interesting parts of the book, though they seemed a bit out of place in a book that seems not to know what it wants to be, flitting about from biography to short stories to a list of plants you, too, can grow. Finally there is a note from one of Burnett’s descendants urging us all to grow kindness. Frankly, it seems like Marta McDowell did not have enough material for this book, so she created a hodgepodge. How well it works will vary be reader.

Initially, I was most struck by how little material we seem to have on Burnett and her gardens. The book notes three she cared for, but focuses most on one, the other two having disappeared to time. A bit of her biography is interspersed with accounts of the gardens, mainly so readers understand how Burnett arrived at such-and-such a place to start a garden there. But the biography is sparse, and the focus remains on what Burnett was planting. None of the magic prose that makes countless readers, myself included, feel inspired to grow something when I am engrossed in reading The Secret Garden. A lot of it is just lists of flower names and an observation that Burnett loved blue and white flowers, and hated magenta.

Photographs are scattered throughout the book, though I felt some were less relevant than others, and I wished they had had dates or photographer credits on them. The one garden Burnett grew is still around (though vastly changed) and all readers have for a guide as to when photos of it were taken is that some are in color and some are in black and white. And yet, does that mean the black and white ones are actual pictures of Burnett’s garden? Or just period photos? And if her son Vivian took some photos, it would be nice to have that more clearly stated on the photos he took. Photographs of Burnett herself are mostly undated.

The strongest part of the book were the writings Burnett herself did on gardens. One, admittedly a little scattered, is about an English garden feature called the ha-ha. It is short and not particularly inspired, but it is interesting. One is an encouragement for readers to garden, mainly focusing on how one can learn from experience and others and not be fearful. This is mainly interesting now because it was penned by a famous author. But the final piece, the one about the real-life robin that loved to keep Burnett company, and which inspired the robin in The Secret Garden casts Burnett’s magic spell all over again. One can tell she truly loves nature–and she makes readers love it, too.

The final pieces of the book almost seem present just to take up space. There is a lengthy list of plants Burnett actually grew or mentions in her books, for readers who want to grow them, too. (An earlier part of the book mentions that gardeners of the time were not interested in native species, so I suppose actually growing some of these might be counter to some contemporary gardening advice I have seen. But I’m no expert.) And then there is the final note by Burnett’s descendant. I’ve never really been a fan of hearing from descendants of famous people unless they really have a special connection to the writer or some special insight. This is just a note saying we all grow stuff and we should grow kindness. And, if we are honest, it would not be that remarkable except that the writer has a famous ancestor. So there’s that.

For me, Unearthing the Secret Garden is a really uneven book, a hodgepodge of information and selections thrown together to make it look like there is something here worth collecting. But, for me, the only really gripping part is Burnett’s story of the robin. Find a copy of that to read, and you can save yourself the trouble of the rest.

3 Stars

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry

The Bright Ages Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsThe Bright Ages
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: December 2021

Official Summary

A lively and magisterial popular history that refutes common misperceptions of the European Middle Ages, showing the beauty and communion that flourished alongside the dark brutality—a brilliant reflection of humanity itself.

The word “medieval” conjures images of the “Dark Ages”—centuries of ignorance, superstition, stasis, savagery, and poor hygiene. But the myth of darkness obscures the truth; this was a remarkable period in human history. The Bright Ages recasts the European Middle Ages for what it was, capturing this 1,000-year era in all its complexity and fundamental humanity, bringing to light both its beauty and its horrors. 

The Bright Ages takes us through ten centuries and crisscrosses Europe and the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa, revisiting familiar people and events with new light cast upon them. We look with fresh eyes on the Fall of Rome, Charlemagne, the Vikings, the Crusades, and the Black Death, but also to the multi-religious experience of Iberia, the rise of Byzantium, and the genius of Hildegard and the power of queens. We begin under a blanket of golden stars constructed by an empress with Germanic, Roman, Spanish, Byzantine, and Christian bloodlines and end nearly 1,000 years later with the poet Dante—inspired by that same twinkling celestial canopy—writing an epic saga of heaven and hell that endures as a masterpiece of literature today.  

The Bright Ages reminds us just how permeable our manmade borders have always been and of what possible worlds the past has always made available to us. The Middle Ages may have been a world “lit only by fire” but it was one whose torches illuminated the magnificent rose windows of cathedrals, even as they stoked the pyres of accused heretics.  

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Review

The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry is a history of medieval Europe for the generalist reader that seeks to combat lingering misconceptions about the time period. Far from being a time without learning or knowledge, the book argues, the medieval period continued to rely on knowledge from the past while also inspiring remarkable accomplishments in theology, art, and more. Furthermore, medieval Europe was never isolated, nor was it the symbol of white purity that white supremacists wish to believe. With a conversational tone, Gabriele and Perry take readers on a whirlwind tour, one that is just a glimpse of all the marvels the Middle Ages have to offer.

Because the book covers such a long period of time, its strength lies in providing an overview rather than an in-depth analysis. Chapters tend to focus on particular kingdoms or geographic regions, while showing how those areas changed over time, and how they interacted with their neighbors. An emphasis is placed on Christianity and its art (its cathedrals, philosophers, and literature) while scientific knowledge largely goes unexplored. Readers imagining that the “Bright Ages” refers to scientific advancements will be disappointed.

The Bright Ages, actually, is just a name that stems from the metaphor that tries to tie the book together. Light is constantly referred to, from the stars painted on a church ceiling to the fires that burned heretics. (In this case, “bright” or “light” is not always equivalent with “good” or “admirable.”) The connection is, admittedly, tenuous, but I guess the authors deserve some recognition for attempting to find a unifying theme in what is otherwise a somewhat scattered kind of book, with no real rhyme or reason indicated as to why the authors would choose to focus on certain figures or kingdoms.

What I found most interesting about The Bright Ages are the stories the authors told highlighting the contributions of women and people of color. Their research indicates that there are such stories to be told, and thus suggests that authors still focusing only on the contributions of white men to European society/the Middle Ages need to do some more work. I appreciated their attempts to expand readers’ understanding of what living in medieval Europe would have really been like.

The Bright Ages is a worthwhile popular history for those interested in the Middle Ages. The information may not be new to readers who know a lot about medieval times, but the book functions wonderfully as an introduction and may just inspire readers to keep learning more.

4 stars

The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World by Shelley Puhak (ARC Review)

Dark Queens book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Dark Queens
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: February 22, 2022

Official Summary

The remarkable, little-known story of two trailblazing women in the Early Middle Ages who wielded immense power, only to be vilified for daring to rule.

Brunhild was a Spanish princess, raised to be married off for the sake of alliance-building. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a lowly palace slave. And yet—in the 6th-century Merovingian Empire, where women were excluded from noble succession and royal politics was a blood sport—these two iron-willed strategists reigned over vast realms for decades, changing the face of Europe.

The two queens commanded armies and negotiated with kings and popes. They formed coalitions and broke them, mothered children and lost them. They fought a years-long civil war—against each other. With ingenuity and skill, they battled to stay alive in the game of statecraft, and in the process laid the foundations of what would one day be Charlemagne’s empire. Yet after Brunhild and Fredegund’s deaths—one gentle, the other horrific—their stories were rewritten, their names consigned to slander and legend.

In The Dark Queens, award-winning writer Shelley Puhak sets the record straight. She resurrects two very real women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of an unfamiliar time and striking at the roots of some of our culture’s stubbornest myths about female power. The Dark Queens offers proof that the relationships between women can transform the world.

Star Divider

Review

The Dark Queens is an utterly immersive work of narrative nonfiction that had wide-eyed and gasping more than any fiction book I’ve read in the past several months. Though the book is focused on Queens Brunhild and Fredegund, the cast of characters is massive, and the complexity and wildness of their political, personal, and military maneuvers is truly something to behold. I couldn’t get enough of this story, and I hope it makes the “Dark Ages” more accessible and interesting to other readers.

Puhak’s work is clearly rooted in an enormous amount of research. There are footnotes (though not so many they interrupt the flow of the story) and direct quotes from sources like Gregory of Tours where applicable. (Unfortunately, very little survives of Brunhild’s or Fredegund’s own words.) There are moments where Puhak is obviously conjecturing, about what Brunhild or Fredegund was probably feelig at some point or about what the city would have looked like from their bedroom windows, etc., but this, too, is clearly grounded in some sort of research (ex. what did this city look and sound like in general at this time period, to their best of our knowledge?), and a careful reader will be able to mentally note the pieces where Puhak seems to be filling in the gaps a bit. Her educated guesses do make the book read more smoothly (again, it’s narrative nonfiction), which I think readers will generally appreciate and find keeps the book engaging.

And engaging it is. I can hardly remember the last time I read a nonfiction book this quickly and with an urgent sense to find out what on earth was going to happen next– because what happened next was always absolutely crazy. Brunhild comes across as brilliant and calculating but one of the more level-headed actors in the story, while Fredegund is fierce about getting rivals out of her ways and cool with being accused of a wide number of murders. The men go about marrying and divorcing and killing and invading everyone left and right, betraying each other and making up and acting like this is all totally normal. What a time to be alive, either as someone in power who had to participate in all this scheming or as a poor peasant who had to wonder month to month exactly what kingdom they belonged to now.

One of the author’s goals is to revive the history specifically of Brunhild and Fredegund, two powerful women who ruled something amounting to an empire, whose contributions to society would be systematically erased by their successors. And the book does do that. I do think, in spite of Puhak’s efforts, that Brunhild comes across as more “sympathetic” than Fredegund, who murdered tons of people and was even violent with her own daughter, but Fredegund is clearly brilliant at playing politics and a force to be reckoned with, and I can see the arguments that people were/are to be less likely to bat an eye at man who’s as violent at she is. I, however, do think the book expands a lot beyond the two women; it’s an excellent portrayal of the region as a whole during this time period, with a large network of actors striving to take land and power.

You don’t need to be a nonfiction fan to enjoy this one. The strong narrative voice and the wild action of the story will keep you engaged even if you’re normally just a fiction reader. I don’t know if a fantasy author could have made stuff up that’s this fast-paced and, at times, downright bizarre. Seriously, go pick this one up when it’s released February 2022.

Briana
5 stars

7 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2021 and What I Thought

Here are seven nonfiction books I read in 2021 and what I thought, both the good and the badd.

1

The Busy Girl’s Guide to Speed Cleaning and Organizing: Clean and Declutter Your Home in 30 Minutes (House Cleaning Secrets, Cleaning and Home Organization) by Elizabeth Bolling

You have a busy life, and cleaning your house does not fall very high on your list of priorities. Luckily, that doesn’t mean you have to live in an unclean home. It’s possible (and easy!) to enjoy a clean, fresh home in just thirty minutes! In The Busy Girl’s Guide to Speed Cleaning and Organizing, author and cleaning expert Elizabeth Bolling provides a goldmine of advice on the best ways to quickly and efficient achieve a clean home, without sacrificing precious time with your family and friends.

Thoughts: So…you start by deep cleaning your house (not fast) and then try to spend 3-5 min. on each room every day. This does not include vacuuming or mopping (that’s separate), and obviously if you have more than, say, 2 bedrooms, you are going to run over 30 min. The suggestions for what to clean and how to organize are decent, but I don’t think this really will help you clean quickly. The most useful tip in terms of speed cleaning is to have a bag that you pile things into that don’t belong in the room you’re cleaning, so you don’t waste time walking back and forth 50 times to other rooms to put those things away.

2

The Montessori Toddler: A Parent’s Guide to Raising a Curious and Responsible Human Being by Simone Davies

Announcing that rare parenting book that will not only help you become a more effective parent but actually change how you see your children. Written by Montessori educator Simone Davies, this book shows you how to bring the educational values of a Montessori classroom into your home—while turning the whole idea of the “terrible twos” on its head.  

Here is how to set up Montessori-friendly spaces in your home. Principles for fostering curiosity in your child—and in yourself. Specific Montessori skills—the winter coat flip; getting your toddler to pour his or her own water and clean up whatever spills might occur. And it goes much deeper, showing how a parent can really be present, be the child’s guide, and handle tantrums and problematic behavior without resorting to bribes, threats, or punishment and truly celebrate every stage.

It’s also that rare parenting book that’s beautiful to look at, with a bright, airy design and simple color illustrations and photographs.

Thoughts: I picked this up because I have a vague idea of what Montessori schools do but not a concrete one, so I was interested to see what principles would transfer to a home. It’s pretty interesting in terms of giving concrete idea of how parents are supposed to set up their homes and activities they are supposed to provide. Somewhat surprisingly, however, it tells you NOT to make your home too much like a Montessori school if your kid attends one because your kid might not find school as exciting then. There are also tips about how to speak with children and get them to do what you want, which parallels some other parentings books I’ve read in the past (and even explicitly cites them.) I’m not actually going to create a Montessori home, but I found this interesting theoretically.

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan

Since the earliest scholarship on The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, critics have discussed how the works of J. R. R. Tolkien seem either to ignore women or to place them on unattainable pedestals. To remedy such claims that Tolkien’s fiction has nothing useful or modern to say about women, Perilous and Fair focuses critical attention on views that interpret women in Tolkien’s works and life as enacting essential, rather than merely supportive roles.

Perilous and Fair includes seven classic articles as well as seven new examinations of women in Tolkien’s works and life. These fourteen articles bring together perspectives not only on Tolkien’s most commonly discussed female characters—Éowyn, Galadriel, and Lúthien—but also on less studied figures such as Nienna, Yavanna, Shelob, and Arwen. Among others, the collection features such diverse critical approaches and methods as literary source study, historical context, feminist theory, biographical investigation, close-reading textual analysis, Jungian archetypes, and fanfiction reader-response.

Thoughts: An incredibly collection of scholarly articles for anyone interested in women in Tolkien, and also the perfect rebuttal for people who think Tolkien’s work is sexist. Click on the title to go to my review, which gives a thorough overview of my general impressions and reviews each essay individually. A must-read for any avid Tolkien fan.

four

The Wild World Handbook: Creatures by Andrea Debbink Asia Orlando (Illustrator)

Packed with real-life tales of adventure, breathtaking illustrations, and practical tools, this handbook is an inspiring guide for the next generation of climate activists, conservationists, and nature lovers.

We share this incredible planet we call home with countless living creatures, from butterflies and falcons to koalas and dolphins. And just like us, animals everywhere are faced with the growing threat of climate change.

Featuring seven categories of creatures, this handbook offers a roadmap for change and an invitation to explore the outdoors with fascinating facts, hope-filled stories, and hands-on STEAM activities. Each chapter highlights the biographies of scientists, artists, and adventurers from diverse backgrounds who have used their passion and skills to become courageous advocates for animals around the world.

The second book in a middle-grade series for young activists and conservationists, The Wild World Handbook: Creatures empowers readers to appreciate and protect Earth’s wildlife.

Inside you will find:
• Seven incredible categories of creatures
• Fourteen inspiring biographies
• Seven kid-friendly DIY activities
• Seven fun field trips
• And much more!

Thoughts: An incredibly engaging middle grade book full of facts about people who help animals, animals themselves, crafts you can do, ways you can help animals, and more. I would never describe myself as an “animal person” (they’re fine, but I’m not overly interested in animals like many people are), but I loved this and the wide variety of information that kept it from feeling repetitive.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

Everyone knows that timing is everything. But we don’t know much about timing itself. Our lives are a never-ending stream of “when” decisions: when to start a business, schedule a class, get serious about a person. Yet we make those decisions based on intuition and guesswork.

Timing, it’s often assumed, is an art. In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink shows that timing is really a science.

Drawing on a rich trove of research from psychology, biology, and economics, Pink reveals how best to live, work, and succeed. How can we use the hidden patterns of the day to build the ideal schedule? Why do certain breaks dramatically improve student test scores? How can we turn a stumbling beginning into a fresh start? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? Why is singing in time with other people as good for you as exercise? And what is the ideal time to quit a job, switch careers, or get married?

Thoughts: I see how many reviewers on Goodreads thought this information isn’t new. It isn’t new to point out that starting high schools later in the day improves student performance and helps students get into fewer car accidents, or to point out that people need breaks and having recess at school or lunch at work makes people more productive than non-stop work. However, as long as no one is actually listening to this information or implementing changes based on it, I see the value of repeating it. It’s clearly new to someone!

The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World by Shelley Puhak

The remarkable, little-known story of two trailblazing women in the Early Middle Ages who wielded immense power, only to be vilified for daring to rule.

Brunhild was a Spanish princess, raised to be married off for the sake of alliance-building. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a lowly palace slave. And yet—in the 6th-century Merovingian Empire, where women were excluded from noble succession and royal politics was a blood sport—these two iron-willed strategists reigned over vast realms for decades, changing the face of Europe.

The two queens commanded armies and negotiated with kings and popes. They formed coalitions and broke them, mothered children and lost them. They fought a years-long civil war—against each other. With ingenuity and skill, they battled to stay alive in the game of statecraft, and in the process laid the foundations of what would one day be Charlemagne’s empire. Yet after Brunhild and Fredegund’s deaths—one gentle, the other horrific—their stories were rewritten, their names consigned to slander and legend.

In The Dark Queens, award-winning writer Shelley Puhak sets the record straight. She resurrects two very real women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of an unfamiliar time and striking at the roots of some of our culture’s stubbornest myths about female power. The Dark Queens offers proof that the relationships between women can transform the world. 

Thoughts: This is possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s absolutely enthralling. Better than fiction. The people in this book are absolutely crazy. There is so much invading and murdering and political intrigue and family drama that I could not put this down.

7

What Self-Made Millionaires Do That Most People Don’t: 52 Ways to Create Your Own Success by Ann Marie Sabath

Confucius said that a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. The same principle applies to becoming a self-made millionaire, except this journey is a little shorter, comprising just 52 common sense practices.

Featuring interviews with a wide-ranging list of self-made millionaires, you will be astonished to see how anyone can achieve this status by creating the right mindset. You will learn how white-collar professionals, blue-collar workers, small business owners, even teenagers alike have joined this million-dollar net worth club by methodically and consistently putting into practice the self-made millionaire game plan revealed in this book.

In What Self-Made Millionaires Do that Most People Don’t, Ann Marie Sabath makes it easy for you to implement these simple strategies by posing a question at the end of each section to help you begin your own self-made millionaire journey.

What Self-Made Millionaires Do that Most People Don’t will teach you: How to create a self-made millionaire mindset. The 25 habits all accomplished individuals have in common. How self-made millionaires benefit from “failure.” Powerful advice for anyone ready to begin their self-made millionaire journey. OK, you’ve been given the rod, now go fish!

Thoughts: I don’t seem to have ever reviewed this or even written any notes on Goodreads, but I gave it three stars, so I assume I found it mildly interesting but not overly compelling or ground-breaking. I’ve read a number of finance books in the past couple years, and their tips generally start sounding the same after a while: cut unnecessary costs, get a side gig, start a retirement account, invest, etc. I assume these self-made millionaires did similar things, even if the book provides more details on their personal stories and how they used “mindset” to eventually get money.

Briana