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.

Star Divider

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.  

Star Divider

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

The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen

The Library

Information

Goodreads: The Library
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

The dramatic and contested history of the library, from the ancient world to the digital age 
 
Famed across the known world, jealously guarded by private collectors, built up over centuries, destroyed in a single day, ornamented with gold leaf and frescoes, or filled with bean bags and children’s drawings—the history of the library is rich, varied, and stuffed full of incident. In The Library, historians Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen introduce us to the antiquarians and philanthropists who shaped the world’s great collections, trace the rise and fall of literary tastes, and reveal the high crimes and misdemeanors committed in pursuit of rare manuscripts. In doing so, they reveal that while collections themselves are fragile, often falling into ruin within a few decades, the idea of the library has been remarkably resilient as each generation makes—and remakes—the institution anew.

Star Divider

Review

The Library attempts to provide a comprehensive history of the library from ancient times up to the modern era.  The focus is primarily on European and American libraries, with a few forays into countries colonized by the British or the French.  The sheer scope of the project means, of course, that not many topics get covered in-depth.  Rather, the authors provide an overview of various periods and practices, a little taste of topics that curious readers just might find themselves researching later.  The mere idea of a book about libraries is sure to delight most library lovers, however, so suffice it to say that people who love books about books will not be disappointed here.

If I have any quibbles about the book, it is that the writing style is rather dry.  Though I am not a fan of popular non-fiction writers who take on an overly personal tone or who try to make jokes, I do appreciate language that flows.  The Library does not flow.  It reads a lot like a bunch of facts strung together–which it is, of course.  But there is a story here, and I rather wanted it to be told like a story.  I wanted to fall into the pages and immerse myself in the magic of the library!

A stronger criticism I have is that The Library does not really seem interested in telling the stories of women until the book is almost over.  Christina, Queen of Sweden is the first woman to get more extended treatment and she lived in the seventeenth century.  Yet my recent reading of The Gilded Page by Mary Wellesley suggests to me that women in the medieval period could have been an interesting topic.  Not until women librarians become prominent does The Library really talk about women, and by then the authors are wrapping up.  I am sure that finding historical information about men is easier, but I also think that information about women could have been included, if it had been made a priority.

Still, The Library does cover many topics of interest, from the move from scrolls to pages, to early book storage (on tables or in trunks–not upright on shelves,) to the ways in which librarians have, far from fighting for freedom of information, sometimes actually worked against that (or as agents of oppressive states).  It covers the devastating loss of libraries time and again throughout history, with a particular emphasis on the ravages of monastery libraries during the Reformation.  And subsequent dismantling of Protestant libraries by Catholic governments.  The history of libraries has never been tranquil–and The Library relishes in revealing all the ways that books can cause trouble.  Library lovers will be fascinated!

So is The Library worth a read?  Of course!  But I also think it is only the start.  The book raises so many interesting questions and must, of necessity, leave so much history out.  But readers who love to read books about books will certainly find a gem here.

3 Stars

The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts by Mary Wellesley

The Gilded Page

Information

Goodreads: The Gilded Page
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Medieval manuscripts can tell us much about power and art, knowledge and beauty. Many have survived because of an author’s status—part of the reason we have so much of Chaucer’s writing, for example, is because he was a London-based government official first and a poet second. Other works by the less influential have narrowly avoided ruin, like the book of illiterate Margery Kempe, found in a country house closet, the cover nibbled on by mice. Scholar Mary Wellesley recounts the amazing origins of these remarkable manuscripts, surfacing the important roles played by women and ordinary people—the grinders, binders, and scribes—in their creation and survival.  

The Gilded Page is the story of the written word in the manuscript age. Rich and surprising, The Gilded Page shows how the most exquisite objects ever made by human hands came from unexpected places.

Star Divider

Review

The Gilded Page is a loosely organized love letter to the medieval manuscript, covering topics ranging from the physical production of parchment to patrons of manuscripts to the scribes who wrote them. Along the way, Mary Wellesley dives into the biographies of various authors, artists, scribes, and patrons, and touches on aspects of medieval life, such as what being an anchoress entailed. While the book can often feel rather random, it does provide many fascinating insights into manuscripts, their reception, and their changing place in history–a rare treat for those interested in the medieval time period.

Because the organization feels so random, readers will likely find themselves pulled more strongly to different parts of the text. For me, reading about some of the women involved in patronizing and even producing manuscripts proved fascinating–I had no idea that women acted as scribes! I also enjoyed learning more about female authors who have been overlooked throughout history, and ended up putting a library hold on a book with poems by the (sometimes bawdy) Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain.

Also fascinating is the concept of the manuscript as an artifact worthy of study in its own right. Wellesley notes that historians and literary critics have often prioritized the vision of the author, and so they spend much time trying to uncover the “original form” of the text. Scribes, however, played a role in shaping texts, adding, excising, and rearranging; their decisions give us insight into how a text might have been understood during a particular time.

On the whole, I enjoyed journeying with Wellesley through the beautiful, weird, and fragile history of the manuscript. One of the great tragedies of history is that so many manuscripts have been lost, due to time, negligence, war, fire, and religious zeal. Some of the most famous texts we have now only barely survived, leading one to wonder just how many other wonderful texts have disappeared forever. The Gilded Page is just a glimpse of the thoughts, dreams, hopes, and fears that the makers of manuscripts left behind.

3 Stars

All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told by Douglas Wolk

All the Marvels

Information

Goodreads: All of the Marvels
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

The superhero comic books that Marvel Comics has published since 1961 are, as Douglas Wolk notes, the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created: over half a million pages to date, and still growing. The Marvel story is a gigantic mountain smack in the middle of contemporary culture. Thousands of writers and artists have contributed to it. Everyone recognizes its protagonists: Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men. Eighteen of the hundred highest-grossing movies of all time are based on parts of it. Yet not even the people telling the story have read the whole thing–nobody’s supposed to. So, of course, that’s what Wolk did: he read all 27,000+ comics that make up the Marvel Universe thus far, from Alpha Flight to Omega the Unknown.

And then he made sense of it–seeing into the ever-expanding story, in its parts and as a whole, and seeing through it, as a prism through which to view the landscape of American culture. In Wolk’s hands, the mammoth Marvel narrative becomes a fun-house-mirror history of the past sixty years, from the atomic night terrors of the Cold War to the technocracy and political division of the present day–a boisterous, tragicomic, magnificently filigreed epic about power and ethics, set in a world transformed by wonders.

As a work of cultural exegesis, this is sneakily significant, even a landmark; it’s also ludicrously fun. Wolk sees fascinating patterns–the rise and fall of particular cultural aspirations, and of the storytelling modes that conveyed them. He observes the Marvel story’s progressive visions and its painful stereotypes, its patches of woeful hackwork and stretches of luminous creativity, and the way it all feeds into a potent cosmology that echoes our deepest hopes and fears. This is a huge treat for Marvel fans, but it’s also a revelation for readers who don’t know Doctor Strange from Doctor Doom. Here, truly, are all of the marvels.

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Review

Douglas Wolk read 27,000 Marvel comics, spanning from the 1960s to the present day, in order to try to make sense of the narrative. The works comprise, he says, the world’s longest continuous story–unlike their competitor DC, Marvel has never rebooted their self-contained universe, but instead kept adding to it, sometimes creating plot holes, but often explaining them away years later. The result is a story so vast that no one is meant to read it–and even Wolk says it is a terrible idea to try (not least because there is a lot of dross in with the gold). While reading all the Marvel comics may be a questionable idea, however, reading about Wolk’s journey is definitely a delight–one sure to entertain casual and hardcore Marvel fans alike.

Initially, I hoped that All the Marvels would finally explain the Marvel universe to me, so I would feel a little less lost when trying out new comics or attempting to figure out where in a character’s story arc to start. However, it quickly became apparent that such a thing is probably not possible. Wolk’s book focuses on just a few key characters, major events, and time periods. But even if he did not selectively pick and choose which comics to focus on, explaining how they all connect is a hopeless task. If I came away from Wolk’s book with anything, it is the knowledge that reading all the comics would not help me feel any more well grounded in the Marvel universe–because that universe is huge, in flux, and not altogether coherent.

This knowledge, however, proves surprisingly freeing. One of the aspects of comics that likely scares new readers is that the universe is so vast, and jumping in feels disconcerting. Wolk, however, assures his own readers that comic writers know this and that comics are written to account for people jumping in. Most comics will give just enough background for readers to follow what is happening now, without having to know everything before. And, as I said above, knowing everything that happened before seems even less necessary to me now, having read Wolk’s explanations of certain characters. A lot of their appearances seem kind of random and maybe unimportant (unless retroactively made important). No character really seems to have a linear timeline that truly makes sense.

Wolk’s own work is a short of ad hoc collection of characters, events, and time periods that he finds interesting. Significant moments also appear, but Wolk acknowledges that people have different ideas of what “significant” means. Significant to the character? The plot? To readers? As part of the writing process? As a period piece? So what grounds the work is really Wolk’s personal journey going through the comics, discovering hidden gems, encountering problematic texts, struggling through poorly written runs to get to the amazing ones. It’s a journey I am thankful he took so the rest of us will not have to.

Hardcore fans of the Marvel comics are as likely to learn something new and surprising as more casual ones. Readers interested in literary history, in comics history, or in the writing process (especially the comics one, with all its collaboration, and the corporate one, where personal and commercial interests collide) will also find the book worthwhile. This project is a unique one–and it certainly will intrigue comics fans!

3 Stars

5 Literary Cookbooks to Make You Feel Like You’re in Your Favorite Book!

5 Literary Cookbooks

Many readers dream of being able to travel into their favorite book–or at least dream of being able to try the food! Below we review five literary cookbooks that will take readers from Middle-Earth to Regency England.

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The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook by Kate MacDonald, Evi Abeler

Anne of Green Gables Cookbook

This book is charmingly illustrated with aptly-named recipes that correspond key moments in the story from Diana’s raspberry cordial mishap to Anne’s liniment cake. There are quotes from the Anne books scattered throughout, so readers know which lines inspired each recipe. Regrettably, however, there is no information on cooking history and only a brief biography of L. M. Montgomery at the end. I wanted to see fun facts about cooking in Anne’s time, even if the recipes are modernized for convenience.

The recipes look easy to make and generally require common ingredients, which is nice. However, perhaps because the book is geared towards children, many of the recipes seem pretty standard, like egg salad sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, and macaroni and cheese. There is nothing I could not already easily make without this book; even the raspberry cordial recipe is just raspberry lemonade.

I did appreciate the cooking tips at the beginning of the book, which make it–along with the simplicity of the recipes–a wonderful gift for children. I do not see myself purchasing a copy, however, since the recipes are so standard that I can already do most of them.

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Dinner with Mr. Darcy by Pen Vogler

Dinner with Mr. Darcy

This book is a delightful foray into the dining and cooking of Austen’s time. I loved the interludes explaining things like when meal times were taken or how tables were set, as well as the notes about how many of these conventions changed during Austen’s own life. The recipes are really interesting as many are probably not meals most would cook or eat today. Many of the meals are very meat-heavy, however, which is not really appealing to me. So any recipes I try out will likely be from the dessert and tea sections.

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The Little Women Cookbook by Wini Moranville

Wini Moranville clearly appreciates Alcott’s work and attempts to offer a cookbook that acknowledges Alcott’s beloved book while also providing recipes for authentic period dishes–thankfully updated for the modern cook. Recipes are mostly based on actual meals and food mentioned in Little Women. But other recipes are those found in the “receipt” book Meg consulted, or recipes that would have been common at the time. The result is that readers will feel confident that they are really experiencing something akin to what diners in the 1860s would have.

Fascinating historical facts and explanations intersperse the book, making it an interesting read for fans of Little Women, even if an individual does not feel like making any of the recipes. For example, Moranville illuminates readers as to the nature of the “messes” Meg cooked for Beth; discusses how the Marches, though poor, managed to afford lobster; and explains what a blacmange is. Other historical notes explain why Louisa May Alcott’s work was filled with apples, or talk about how her father was what we would now call a vegan. Moranville ends up answering questions about Little Women and its author that readers may not have even known to ask.

Easy-to-make recipes paired with full menu suggestions make this a cookbook that I actually use. I have tried the apple orchard chicken, the pickled lime cookies, the Dijon mustard, and the hot milk sponge cake–and I make the sponge cake regularly. I intend to try more recipes since they have all been delicious!

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The Secret Garden Cookbook: Inspiring Recipes from the Magical World of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden by Amy Cotler

This beautifully-illustrated cookbook was precisely the type of book I wished to find after reading The Little Women Cookbook. Period dishes are paired with explanations of how food would have been prepared during Mary Lennox’s time. The author also clearly explains the different types of food that might have been available in the countryside versus the city, and how people of different social classes might have eaten. There is even a section on recipes that were imported from or inspired by the British presence in India. Many of the recipes look delicious, and I have bookmarked a few to try out in the future.

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An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery by Chris-Rachael Oseland

I have to admit that I was expecting more recipes directly inspired by Middle-earth, so I ended up merely flipping through this book and not cooking anything. The dishes are mainly English countryside Victorian fare that J. R. R. Tolkien might have eaten. I was not particularly interested in recipes for things like steak and ale pie, venison cobbler, porter cake, and Yorkshire pudding, however, so maybe I am not the target audience for this book. Also, there are similar recipes in here as contained in The Secret Garden Cookbook–and I thought The Secret Garden Cookbook was superior. I did appreciate the historical notes about cooking and food in Tolkien’s day, however.

The Wild World Handbook: Creatures by Andrea Debbink

Information

Goodreads: The Wild World Handbook: Creatures
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Quirk Books for review
Publication Date: November 2, 2021

Official Summary

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! 

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Review

I would not say I am an “animal person.” I like them well enough and vaguely find some cute and some interesting, but I have never been the type of person who read extensively about animals, loved zoos, or wanted to work with animals. So it was with great delight I discovered this book is FASCINATING and I read it cover to cover in two days.

Part of the book’s brilliance is the variety of information: fun facts, biographies of people who help animals, information on specific species, crafts, and learning activities you can do. I never felt like I was reading the same thing or had to slog through.

I also love the emphasis on how kids can continue to learn about animals and become helpers themselves, which is motivational. Stories of animals that HAVE gone extinct and others that have been saved help illustrate the importance of this.

The beautiful illustrations also make the book fun and compelling to read. I highly recommend this.

Briana
3 Stars

Making Avonlea: L. M. Montgomery and Popular Culture, ed. by Irene Gammel

Making Avonlea

Information

Goodreads: Making Avonlea
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2002

Official Summary

Since the publication of Anne of Green Gables in 1908, L.M. Montgomery and the world of Anne have propelled themselves into a global cultural phenomenon, popular not only in Canada, but in places as diverse as Japan, the United States, and Iran. Making Avonlea, the first study to focus on Montgomery and her characters as popular cultural icons, brings together twenty-three scholars from around the world to examine Montgomery’s work, its place in our imagination, and more specifically its myriad spin-offs including musicals, films, television series, t-shirts, dolls, and a tourist industry.

Invoking theories of popular culture, film, literature, drama, and tourism, the essayists probe the emotional attachment and loyalty of many generations of mostly female readers to Montgomery’s books while similarly scrutinizing the fierce controversies that surround these books and their author’s legacy in Canada. Twenty-five illustrations of theatre and film stills, artwork, and popular cultural artefacts, as well as snapshot pieces featuring personal reflections on Montgomery’s novels, are interwoven with scholarly essays to provide a complete picture of the Montgomery cultural phenomenon. Mythopoetics, erotic romance, and visual imagination are subjects of discussion, as is the commercial success of various television series and movies, musicals, and plays based on the Anne books. Scholars are equally concerned with the challenges and disputes that surround the translation of Montgomery’s work from print to screen as well as the growth of tourist sites and websites that have themselves moved Avonlea into new cultural landscapes. Making Avonlea allows the reader to travel to these sites and to consider Canada’s most enduring literary figures and celebrity author in light of their status as international icons almost one hundred years after they first arrived on the scene.

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Review

With its broad focus on everything from interpretations of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon to film analyses, descriptions of doll-making, and explorations of Japanese Anne clubs, Making Avonlea is a fascinating look at how Montgomery’s work has been received, reinterpreted, and commodified. The essays range from scholarly critiques to personal confession, with each writer bringing their unique perspective to a field that they hope will continue to find acceptance in the broader scholarly community. However, despite the academic emphasis, the collection will also appeal to a more popular audience; any fan of Anne’s will be intrigued by the new viewpoints raised, and encouraged to look at Montgomery’s writings (and their reincarnations) with fresh eyes.

Like any collected work, Making Avonlea contains essays that vary in quality and interest. For my part, I found several of the analyses of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon lacking–though this did not surprise me. I remain convinced that the “publish or perish” mentality in higher academia has led to a wealth of sub-par publications, which often do not seem to have any real point (observing things in a literary work, but not saying why it matters) or that seem to be far-fetched theories in an attempt to say something new. This is true of many publications, not just this one.

So, for instance, I was intrigued by Irene Gammel’s “Safe Pleasures for Girls: L. M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes” and its argument that Montgomery subversively represents reader desire in her works. However, I started to question how far the argument can really go when Gammel writes that Emily’s sexual awakening occurs at Priest Pond and experiences menstruation in the Pink Room, as represented by what Gammel calls “Montgomery’s complex literary cryptogram for menstrual symptoms,” i.e. Emily’s “cold perspiration, anxiety, terror, horror, panic, and a none-too-subtle Gothic vision of a ‘bleeding nun'” (123). I am not sure that anxiety and terror are the most obvious symptoms of menstruation. Had Emily experienced cramps, bloating, backache, a headache, or fatigue, I would be more convinced that she is on her period, and not just experiencing an overactive imagination.

In the same vein, while I find it interesting for Gammel to argue that, “Wyther Grange signal the heroine’s entrance into fertility… ‘Grange’ (=grain) evokes the ancient fertility rites,” (123) I tend to be skeptical of criticism where we have to read too much into the work. Yes, the text can support the argument since the evidence is there. But…isn’t it a bit much to start linking Emily’s visit (where, it is true, she does grow up, does have a weirdly sexual encounter with a grown man, and does learn about sex from her female relatives) with fertility rituals? I tend to be a bit old-school with my literary criticism preferences, and I dislike when scholars seem to need to reach to prove their cleverness with unlikely allusions and assertions. An analysis of Emily’s experiences and how she emerges from them with new knowledge and less innocence is sufficient for me.

My favorite parts of the collection were the essays that did not focus on the books, but on the adaptations and products linked to the works. It is fascinating to see how Montgomery’s writings have spawned a bunch of industries, turning P.E.I. into a tourist destination designed to please fans who mistakenly think Anne is real (or conflate her with her author), creating copyright disputes and fights for “authenticity” when mass producing Anne products, and even inspiring an Avonlea section of a Japanese theme park. Some of these essays seem more like observations than analyses–or observations with a few sentences tacked on the end, in a half-hearted attempt to link the observations to some nebulous broader theme. But the questions they raise about Anne’s popularity, how she has been received by fans, and how others seek to capitalize on or manipulate fans’ enthusiasm are ones that will haunt readers as they consider their own place in the ever-expanding world of Anne.

Overall, Making Avonlea is both an enjoyable and an engrossing read. Anyone interested in Montgomery’s writing, popular culture, or, of course, Anne will want to check this out. The many incarnations of Anne may surprise even the most avid of fans!