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 Stars (4.5 / 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 Stars (5 / 5)

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Dave Barry Slept Here Book Review

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Review:

As a lifelong history nerd, Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States is my favorite Dave Barry book. It’s the type of parody that gets funnier the better you know the original, and as someone reasonably knowledgeable about US history, I found it hysterical!

Though his use of footnotes doesn’t quite beat Terry Pratchett’s, definitely make sure you read them! I also enjoy the chapter headings. A sampling:

  • Deflowering a Virgin Continent
  • The Forging of a Large, Wasteful Bureaucracy
  • Deep International Doo-doo
  • Severe Economic Bummerhood
  • The Sixties: A Nation Gets High and Has Amazing Insights, Many of Which Later Turn Out To Seem Kind of Stupid

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace Book Review

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Review:

One of my favorite Russian history books, Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is the “biography” of a lesser known palace near St. Petersburg. Pavlovsk Palace is not as grand as better known palaces such as Peter the Great’s imitation Versailles at Peterhof, or the massive Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, but it’s inspired an unusual degree of devotion in many people across the centuries, starting with its original owner, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law and wife of the ill-fated Emperor Paul (Pavel) I. Catherine took Maria’s first two sons away from her at birth to raise herself, and Maria and Paul were only permitted to see them once a week. Deprived of her children, the artistic and cultured Maria threw her energies into designing and decorating the palace and gardens of Pavlovsk. There is quite a bit of interesting information about Maria, her architects and landscapers, and the different influences on the park’s final design, especially for anyone interested in architecture, fine art, or landscape design.

After Maria’s death, the park was opened to the public and became the site of fashionable concerts (including an extended visit by Strauss) for most of the later 19th century. The Soviets, after initially planning to sell off its treasures, were eventually persuaded by Pavlovsk’s caretaker to turn it into a state museum.

Then came World War II and the Nazi invasion of Russia. There is a fascinating and horrifying chapter about the siege of Leningrad, the deadliest in human history, during which 1-1.5 million civilians died and an additional 1,400,000 were evacuated. Pavlovsk itself was stripped of as many of its treasures as its caretakers could preserve while the Nazi army approached, and these were buried on the grounds of the park or taken to Leningrad or Siberia.  The rest were looted or destroyed by the Germans, who also cut down 70,000 trees within the park and set fire to the palace as they retreated near the end of the war. In the aftermath of the war, with the palace and park in smoldering ruins, its caretakers spent decades painstakingly rebuilding and restoring it to its former glory, and it is now once again open to the public.

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is well-written and absorbing, and will make you love Pavlovsk as much as its author clearly does. I was inspired after reading it to visit the park three times during my semester abroad in Russia and consider it one of the most beautiful spots in Russia.

Here’s a video with scenes from the palace and park:

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)