To Marry an English Lord Book Review



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Review:

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, the novels of Edith Wharton, or similar period pieces, I can’t recommend To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, highly enough. Starting in the 1870s, many wealthy and beautiful American heiresses, snubbed by stuffy New York high society, moved to England, where they married into the British aristocracy, saving many a bankrupt family estate in the process. These matches had surprisingly far reaching consequences for both British and American society, and included Randolph and Jennie Churchill, parents of Winston, George and Mary Curzon, who became the second highest ranking woman in the British Empire after Lord Curzon was named viceroy of India, and James and Frances Burke-Roche, great-grandparents of Princess Diana. The book also focuses a great deal on Alva Vanderbilt and her daughter Consuelo (pictured on the cover), who married the Duke of Marlborough and later shared her experiences in the classic memoir The Glitter and the Gold. (If you’re interested in the Vanderbilt ladies, I also recommend Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.)

To Marry an English Lord is a well-written, informative, and highly entertaining peek into the lives of wealthy and aristocratic Americans and Brits in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Many parts read kind of like a Victorian People magazine, and the gossip is still as scorching now as it was 120 years ago! My only complaint is the format of the book, which is copiously illustrated and stuffed with so many info boxes and two page spreads on different details that it can be difficult to read. Hard to fault a book too much for providing too much information, though, especially when it’s as fascinating as this one!

Originally published in 1989, To Marry an English Lord has been re-released as a result of the popularity of Downton Abbey, which features an Anglo-American marriage between Lord Robert and Cora Crawley that is similar to those described in this book.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Man-Eaters of Kumaon Book Review



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Review:

A really well-written and fascinating memoir by Jim Corbett, one of the world’s greatest big game hunters, about his experiences tracking and killing man-eating tigers in India, including the infamous Champawat Tigress, who killed 436 people in Nepal and India before being shot by Corbett in 1907. Although I’m an avid hiker, my tracking skills are basic in the extreme and it was really fascinating getting a peek into the mind of a great tracker like Corbett. The amount of information he could pick up from something as simple as a footprint or tuft of hair was mind-blowing. There’s also quite a bit of interesting information about tiger behavior and habits.

As somebody who is morally opposed to big game hunting, there were a few chapters I found sad and depressing to read, because several of the hunts he discusses in the book were in pursuit of tigers who were not man-eaters and who he killed due to their large size or a similar factor that I don’t consider justification for murder. (Later in life, he apparently had a change of heart and refused to shoot any tiger that was not a proven man-eater, as well as lobbying for the creation of India’s first national park to protect tiger habitat.) However, the chapters on the man-eaters were thrilling reads.

Given the era and society in which he lived and wrote, I was pleasantly surprised by Corbett’s sympathetic treatment of both the poor Indian villagers he was trying to protect and the man-eaters themselves. There were several very moving passages about the courage of some of the tigers’ victims and would-be victims and their families and neighbors, including a brave young woman who chased after the Champawat Tigress with nothing but a sickle after it carried off her sister. Corbett also treats the tigers with respect and explains the factors that made them into man-eaters, with harsh words for his fellow hunters when he discovers bullet wounds that disabled but did not kill the animal, forcing it to turn to easier, human prey.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Rules For the Dance Book Review



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Review:

I’ve read, well, not tons of poetry, but probably more than most people, and did pretty well in high school and college English classes (I was even thinking about being an English major for awhile), but The Rules for the Dance: A Handbook For Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, by Mary Oliver, really opened my eyes to a LOT of things that I’d been missing in poetry. Some of it now seems blindingly obvious after reading the book – poetry is meant to be recited, so of course the rhythm of the poem would affect the breath of the reciter, and vice versa – and some of it still kind of blows my mind with how many layers of meaning can be fitted into a few short lines. Right off the bat, her analysis of Robert Frost’s Bereft amazed me, for example, and gave me a new appreciation for Frost’s skill (and he was already my favorite poet!)

Copiously demonstrated with examples from famous poems, the book explains the different types of metrical patterns (iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest) and how each one affects the mood and tone of the poem, both by themselves and in combination with each other and elements such as line length, rhyme, and more. It may sound boring, but it’s well-written enough (and the example poems are all good enough) to make for quite a fascinating read. The book also includes a short anthology of metrical poems to practice on.

Whether you want to write poetry or simply develop a greater appreciation for reading it, I highly recommend this book!

My rating: (5 / 5)

The Tough Guide To Fantasyland Book Review



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Review:

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was recommended to me by one of my college friends because of my fondness for the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and it is hysterical! Popular fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones has written a fictional “travel guide” for “Fantasyland,” a typical sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy setting, that hilariously eviscerates many of the fantasy genre’s favorite cliches and stock phrases. This book will get funnier the more fantasy novels you’ve read, but even a passing acquaintance with the Lord of the Rings movies or similar should be enough to get a few chuckles of recognition out of you.

If you like this book, I also recommend The Book of Weird, by Barbara Byfield, which is very similar but focuses more on fairy tale cliches (i.e. princesses always come in sets of 1, 3, 7, or 12) than those of the modern fantasy genre, and The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.

My rating: (5 / 5)

 

The Look-It-Up Guides To Mythology Series Review (Mythlopedia)



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Review:

On our wishlist

My daughter loved the Percy Jackson series and I wanted to get her some books to give her a somewhat more accurate understanding of Greek mythology. Unfortunately, my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths seems to have disappeared in one of our moves and she’s still a little young for Hamilton’s Mythology. While I was browsing through the library looking for an alternative to D’Aulaire (which they didn’t have for some reason), I stumbled across this series. It looked funny and accurate (despite a whole bunch of extremely anachronistic slang), so I checked out the whole series and my daughter LOVED them. I’ve personally only read bits and pieces so far, but her reaction was enough to add them immediately to our wishlist.

The full series is:

Hamilton’s Mythology Book Review



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Review:

Although this wasn’t the book that began my love affair with Greek mythology (that was Favorite Greek Myths, by Mary Pope Osborne), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is the one that confirmed it. I first read it about age 10 and it’s been one of my favorite books ever since.

Although Bulfinch’s Mythology is also an excellent and comprehensive choice for someone interested in learning more about the Greek myths, I think Hamilton is the better storyteller of the two. I especially like how she intersperses clips of the great plays and poems the stories have been passed down in, which give you a feel not just for the stories themselves but the beauty of ancient Greek literature.

My rating: (5 / 5)

1491: New Revelations About the Americas Before Columbus Book Review



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Review:

1491, by Charles Mann, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Thanks to a lifelong interest in Plains Indian cultures, I thought I knew more about American Indian history than most white people, and technically I probably do. But this book still managed to blow my mind – repeatedly – with some of the information it contained about pre-Columbian life.

It begins with an argument that will be familiar to most people with more than a passing knowledge of pre-Columbian history: that there were far more people living in the Americas in 1491 than most historians and archaeologists have traditionally assumed. 19th century estimates put the figure as low as 10 million people in all of North and South America, and the mainstream estimate today is about 50 million. Mann argues, carefully backed by evidence from primary sources and archaeological digs, that the population may actually have been closer to that estimated by the “high-counters” – as much as 90-112 million!

It is extremely likely that in excess of 90% of the population was destroyed in the aftermath of Columbus’s discovery of America, primarily by epidemics of Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, to which the indigenous people of the Americas had little or no immunity, though many were also killed directly through war, slavery, etc. Many of the victims would have died without ever knowing that Europeans existed, but the devastation of the population had long-lasting effects on both native cultures and the American landscape.

Mann goes on to argue that pre-Columbian Indian populations were not just larger and more culturally and technologically sophisticated than previously assumed, but that they also had a greater impact on the American landscape. He argues that what appeared to early European explorers to be untrammeled wilderness was in many cases what remained of once-carefully tended gardens and fields that had become abandoned and overgrown following the holocaust of the local human population. This is the largest and most fascinating part of the book, with examples drawn from many regions and cultures across the Americas. As in the first section, Mann is careful to show the evidence for his claims, and also does a good job covering the opposing arguments in areas where there is much still up for debate, such as a bitter and ongoing dispute between archaeologists Betty Meggers, Anne Roosevelt, and their supporters about pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures.

My only real complaint about the book is that it focuses much more on Mesoamerica than North America, so while the Mesoamerican stuff is extremely interesting and was in many cases totally new to me, there are big gaps in the coverage of North America. Sadly for me, the Plains region is almost entirely ignored, although there is some interesting stuff about the moundbuilding cultures of the nearby Midwest and Mississippi regions.

1491 is also, unfortunately, a somewhat dangerous book, and there is a certain type of person I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it to. It lays out a lot of pretty convincing evidence that humans have had a massive impact on American ecosystems and landscapes for thousands of years; that, in fact, certain iconic American landscapes may have been partially CREATED by human intervention. In certain minds, information of this sort could become a blunt weapon to justify the continued exploitation and destruction of America’s remaining wild places. As someone approaching the book from the perspective of a lifelong environmentalist, however, what struck me over and over again while reading was how careful American Indian land management actually was. Although Mann presents multiple examples of Indian cultures that failed due partially or entirely to ecological overshoot, he also finds many examples of cultures that managed the landscape intensively yet sustainably.

One of the most striking examples comes from the Amazon rainforest, which Mann argues was treated essentially as a massive orchard by pre-Columbian cultures in the region. He argues that the primarily nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures that characterize indigenous peoples in the region today are most likely a historical anomaly – that many of them are likely to be the descendants of settled, agricultural people who survived the epidemics that swept through the region in the 16th and 17th centuries but were forced back into the nomadic lifestyle by demographic collapse. Instead of logging the forest, growing crops for a few years until the soil is exhausted, and moving on as all too many modern farmers and ranchers in the region do, pre-Columbian Indians found a way to preserve the fertility of normally nutrient-poor rainforest soils for centuries through the creation of terra preta. Created primarily between 450 BC and 950 AD, the terra preta soils of the Amazon remain fertile today. Now that’s some long-term planning! Although the population supported by such techniques would have been far lower than the modern world even if the “high counters” are correct, I thought the book offered some very interesting implications for how modern societies could improve the sustainability of our own land management practices.

Highly recommended!

My rating: (5 / 5)

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My Favorite Horse Novels For Kids

I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I don’t come from a horsey family, so I had the opportunity to ride only briefly, when I studied dressage for a couple years in my late teens. As one of those girls who asked her parents for a horse every year for Christmas, I had to content myself for most of my childhood and early teen years with reading about them. Luckily, there are tons of great horse stories out there. I was desperate enough to read quite a few books that were pretty terrible in terms of the quality of the writing, but also many that are legitimate classics. My favorite horse stories included:



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King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry

My all-time favorite. Based (though with many historical liberties) on the true story of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the founding sires of the thoroughbred breed. Born in Morocco, the fleet-footed but small Godolphin Arabian (or Sham, as he is known in the book) is sent as a gift by the Sultan to the young king of France, who fails to recognize what he’s been given and turns the young stallion into a carthorse. Along with his loving caretaker, Agba, a mute horseboy from the Sultan’s stables, Sham is passed from owner to owner, some kind, some horrible, before his worth is finally recognized by the Earl of Godolphin. It’s a thrilling and emotional story, bookended by an account of Sham’s great descendant Man O’War and his match race with Sir Barton.

My rating: (5 / 5)

I read all of Marguerite Henry’s horse books as a kid and loved them all. My other favorite was Black Gold, the story of the 1930s-era Oklahoma racehorse who finished his last race on “three legs and a heart.” (Needless to say, a tearjerker!)



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The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

The first and best of the popular Black Stallion series, which I read most of. The series stars another fleet-footed Arabian, the wild and savage Black, who survives a shipwreck and a stint being marooned on a desert island with a young boy before returning to New York and becoming a mystery entrant in the match race of the century. Both a great adventure story and a great sports story!

The Black Stallion was made into a pretty good (though not entirely faithful) film during the 70s, with champion Arabian Cass Ole as The Black. The scenes on the desert island are particularly beautiful and well done.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Farley’s fictionalized biography of the legendary Man O’War is also a great read.



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Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

Fiction with an agenda can sometimes be pretty overbearing, but Black Beauty, which Sewell wrote to bring attention to the widespread mistreatment of horses in the late Victorian era, is a great story as well as a convincing piece of propaganda. Beauty narrates the story of his life, from his happy period as a foal playing with his mother in the green English countryside to the cruel life of a London cabhorse and beyond. It’s probably the world’s most famous horse story, and deservedly so.

There have been several attempts to make a movie out of the story, of which the best and most faithful is this 1994 one, starring Sean Bean (who doesn’t die, for once), David Thewlis, Alan Cumming, Alun Armstrong, and Jim Carter.

My rating: (4 / 5)



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Mr Revere and I, by Robert Lawson

A fun historical fiction novel about the American Revolution, told from the perspective of Paul Revere’s horse Scheherazade (aka Sherry). Sherry begins her career as the pride of the British Army and a dyed-in-the-wool loyalist to the British Crown, but is gradually converted to the colonial side after being “liberated” by Sam Adams (who’s given an especially entertaining portrayal here) and given to the Revere family. It’s a very funny and well written book on top of being educational and exciting, so it’s a great read by itself and would also make a wonderful addition to any Revolutionary War unit study.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Lawson’s other Revolutionary-War-from-an-animal-perspective novel, Ben and Me, which narrates the life of Ben Franklin through the eyes of his pet mouse, is also very enjoyable.

Some of my other favorite horse novels for children are sadly out of print and hard to find, such as Sky Rocket: The Story of a Little Bay Horse, another riches-to-rags-to-riches story similar to Black Beauty, and the flawed but interesting And Miles To Go: The Biography of a Great Arabian Horse, Witez II, about a Polish Arabian stallion who was caught up in the events of World War 2 before being imported to America.

What are your favorite horse stories for children?

The Redwall Series Review



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Review:

The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, was one of my favorite series when I was growing up. Although I don’t remember for sure, I think I was about 8 when I stumbled upon Mossflower by accident in the library one day. By the time I was a teen, my brother (also a fan) and I had accumulated a whole shelf full of sturdy hardcover Redwall books, many of them dogeared from re-reading.

The series takes place mainly in and around Redwall Abbey, a sanctuary for woodland creatures such as mice, squirrels, moles, hares, and badgers. They clearly need such a sanctuary, because they’re constantly getting attacked by one foul band of evil-doers or another. High adventure ensues, and I’m warning you now, Brian Jacques is a master of cliffhanger chapter endings, so these books are very hard to put down once you start! For this reason, despite their length, they’re a great choice for reluctant readers. Though I wasn’t a reluctant reader myself, I remember receiving the third book, Mattimeo, for Christmas the year I discovered the series and being extremely proud of myself because I finished the whole thing – nearly 500 pages – in a single marathon reading session on the living room couch, while the rest of the family celebrated Christmas around me.



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In addition to being great adventure stories, the series has a lot of humor, and I also credit it with developing my early appreciation for great food descriptions in literature. The descriptions of the feasts are scrumptious. As an adult, I appreciate the many positive role models it contains for both boys and girls.

Eventually, the books started blurring together and becoming more repetitive, or maybe I just outgrew them, so I ultimately stopped reading in my late teens at book 11 (Marlfox), while the series eventually stretched to 23 books by the time of Jacques’s death in 2011. Despite this, I retain a big soft spot for Redwall Abbey and its furry inhabitants. They were some of the defining books of my childhood.

My favorite Redwall books include:

Mossflower

The prequel to Redwall, and the book that first hooked me on the story.  Martin the Warrior teams up with the woodland creatures to overthrow the cruel rule of the wildcat Tsarmina and found Redwall Abbey.



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Mariel of Redwall

A young mouse maid must save her father from pirates. Mariel is one of the best of many great female characters in the Redwall series.

Salamandastron

This book focuses a lot on the badgers of Salamandastron and features another of my favorite Redwall heroines.

Martin the Warrior

More of Martin’s exciting backstory. I won’t lie, I cried like a baby over a certain scene.

The Pearls of Lutra

My favorite of the later books I read.

The series can be read chronologically or in order of publication:

[Read more…]

John Denver Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits Album Review



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Review:

John Denver is one of relatively few singers that both my parents like (their tastes are not very compatible at all in general – my mom is all about classical music and opera, while my dad’s favorite genre is 60’s and 70’s folk-rock), so we listened to quite a lot of him when I was growing up and he’s been one of my favorite singers for pretty much as long as I remember. This album is a fantastic collection and contains almost all of my favorite Denver songs (the main exception being “Grandma’s Feather Bed”), so it was a must-buy for me. I also managed to convert my husband and a bunch of his family members into fans, so this album is a regular in our car rotation, especially on long trips. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a special favorite for us, as it was the first English language song my husband’s nephew loved when he came to live with us in the United States, and he’d always get the whole car singing along.

I imprinted so hard on Denver’s music that it’s practically a part of me and it’s hard to consider it objectively enough to write a good review. He certainly has a pleasant singing voice, but I think the real magic is from his beautiful and evocative lyrics. He also handles a range of emotions very well – from the achingly romantic “Annie’s Song,” to the melancholy “I’m Sorry,” to the just plain fun of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” I do think a few of the songs go on a little too long (“Sunshine on My Shoulders” in particular always stands out to me as a song that’s beautiful but should be about half as long as it is), but these are relatively few.

My rating: (5 / 5)