Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “history”

Miss Kate’s CBR4 Review#9: The Tigress of Forlí, by Elizabeth Lev


“If I were to write the story of my life, I would shock the world.” —Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici

About a year ago, I read a book called The Borgia Bride, written by Jeanne Kalogridis. A (no doubt highly) fictionalized account of life with the Borgias, it was told from the point of view of Sancha of Aragon, wife to the youngest Borgia. I didn’t like it very much, but one part stood out for me. When Sancha is imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo (history, not much of a spoiler), she meets an extraordinary woman. Caterina Sforza is a warrior countess and fellow prisoner. Beautiful and brave, she led her army against Cesare Borgia and lost. I’d never heard of her before, and was interested in knowing more.

The Tigress of Forlí is the biography of Caterina Sforza de’ Medici.

Lady of Imola and Countess of Forlí, Caterina was born the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, and raised to understand her family’s place in the world. Married at age 10 to the corrupt Girolamo Riario (the nephew of the pope), she spends many years in Rome watching the power brokers at work. She bears him 6 children, and they eventually settle in Romagna to rule over Forlí. After her obnoxious husband is murdered, Caterina takes control of this small but important territory on behalf of her children. She takes charge of her lands and her destiny, and makes choices that at this point in history are considered.

Over many years (and 2 more husbands), Caterina becomes a celebrity, shocking and fascinating those around her. She’s crafty, strong, loyal to her family and ruthless with her enemies. I enjoyed this book, but found it a bit of a slog at times. With a cast of thousands, it was at times rather hard to remember who was who. Perhaps if I had better understanding of the political climate of 15th Century Italy, keeping the power shifts (and changing allegiances) straight wouldn’t have been such a chore. And although the book does a pretty good job of bringing Caterina to life, there are times when she gets lost, her motivations unclear. But these are relatively minor quibbles. I hate to use the word “important” when describing a book – it sounds pompous. But a biography of this woman who actually wielded power as opposed to working behind the scenes is something not to be missed.

Miss Kate’s reviews: 6,7,8: The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning

Miss Kate’s reviews: 6,7,8

Miss Kate’s CBR4 reviews 6, 7, 8: The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke is a trilogy of books set in and around the Cape Cod village of Satucket in the years leading up to the American Revolution. While not a strictly linear story, (they all pretty much stand alone), they definitely belong together, and tell a larger tale.

The first book, The Widow’s War, centers around Lyddie Berry. When her husband of 20 years drowns in a whaling accident, she finds her life altered in ways she hadn’t expected. In the midst of her grief, she is forced to watch as her husband’s property (which includes her home), is turned over to her greedy and obnoxious son-in-law. This is in accordance with the laws of the times – a woman has no property and no social standing without a husband. As her grief turns into rage, she resolves to become independent and get her home back. The legal and personal battle that follows takes it’s toll on her in surprising ways.

Bound is the story of Alice Cole, a young bond slave. The book follows her from early childhood in London and a harrowing sea voyage where her mother and brother die, to the docks of Boston where her father is forced to sell her into bondage for 11 years. She is bought by John Morton, a kindly man who brings her home as a companion to his daughter Nabby. Nabby and Alice grow up together, and when Nabby marries, Alice’s bond is sold to Nabby’s husband. Alice goes along as maidservant. Nabby’s new husband, however, is not what he seems to be. When Alice finds her life endangered, she runs away and stows aboard a ship bound for Satucket. There she meets the Widow Berry and her friend Eben Freeman. They are kind to Alice and take her in. Alice believes that her nightmare is over, until a secret comes to light that could ruin everything for her.

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke centers around the Widow Berry’s step-grandaughter. Jane grows up in privilege as the daughter of one of Satucket’s biggest landowners (the odious son-in-law from the first book). The year is now 1769. When she refuses to marry the man her father chooses for her, Jane is packed off to Boston as punishment. She is sent to care for an elderly aunt, and she finds herself in the middle of a city in turmoil. There are British soldiers bunked across the street, and Jane’s brother is a law clerk for John Adams. She meets and becomes friends with the bookseller (and later Revolutionary hero) Henry Knox.  As she takes this all in, and becomes witness to the Boston Massacre, Jane struggles to make sense of it. She also is determined to make up her own mind for the first time in her life.

All three books are very different, but as I said, together they tell a whole story. Each book focuses on one woman and her struggle to take control of her own destiny. Throughout the books, we meet patriots who meet to discuss independence from Britain. Yet the plight of the women and servants among them is not considered important enough for discussion. It is these small, personal struggles that are at the heart of these books, mirroring the bigger, historical struggles As a 21st century woman, I take my freedom for granted. It’s sobering to read about a time, not too long ago, when women had no legal standing. The endings are realistic in the way things are a little open-endednot necessarily “wrapped up”, and you are left to draw your own conclusions from what you’ve learned of the characters personalities.

These are “stand alone” books, but I would only recommend reading The Widow’s War by itself. It helps set up the characters for the next 2 books. I also found Lyddie Berry and Eben Freeman to be my favorite characters. They appear in the last 2 books, but are not the focus.

All in all, I enjoyed these books. The endings are realistic in the way things are not necessarily “wrapped up”, and you are left to draw your own conclusions from what you’ve learned of the characters personalities.If you enjoy reading about the colonial life before the Revolution, I would recommend them.

Goddess of Apathy’s #CBR4 Review #10: The Divine Wind, by Garry Disher


The Divine Wind is is a young adult historical fiction novel that I am currently reading with my high school students. I read it before they did, and I was entertained by the plot and character interactions as well as the multiple examples of conflict. So far, students have enjoyed the book as much as I did.

The setting is Broome, Austrailia both before, during, and after World War II. Broome is a seaside town with a mix of culture and ethnicity. The narrator is Hartley Penrose, a seventeen year old son of a pearl master, Michael Penrose. His family also includes a sister, Alice,  and an English born mother, Ida Penrose. Hartley has a friend and love interest, Mitsy Sennosuke, a Japanese girl whose father, Zeke works for Michael Penrose as a pearl diver.

With war looming in the background, the cultural and ethnic differences begin to rise to the surface causing all types of conflict between families and friends. My students are half-way through the book and have found so much to discuss about relationships: can you choose whom to love? What if your parents don’t want you to be together because of race/ethnicity/culture? Can a relationship survive multiple challenges? We have discussed cultural differences of the English, Australian, Japanese, and Aboriginal. We have discussed the conflicts of the expectations of the time period and conflicts between countries in war time.

Garry Disher has so many little nuggets of historical and cultural information. I was not familiar with Broome, Australia past or present. I did not know what pearl divers did. I had no idea what the Register of Aliens was. Yet, I found myself exploring the Internet for information about Australia, stumbling upon the NFSA Film Australia Collection on YouTube. I’ve read countless informational articles about Australia’s beginnings and its geographical landscape, looked at Google Maps Streetview to see Hartley’s viewpoint at Cable Beach, and what Chinatown looks like in Broome. I’ve investigated the newsreels of the time, the music, fashion, and movies that might have been playing in the tin-topped cinema of Sheba Lane. I’ve share that information with my students and it has brought the text to life for them.

I think the book is interesting and entertaining. Disher’s language is plain, but he has some statements and sentences that are meaningful on multiple levels.  I recommend the book for light reading and it shouldn’t take long for you to enjoy it. All the outside research is purely optional.

Miss Kate’s review #5

Miss Kate’s review #5

In The Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson


I’ve been reading furiously (furiously, I tell you!) this year, but between school, work, and motherhood, sitting down and actually writing reviews has proven pretty difficult. So over the next few days, I’ll be posting much more often in an effort to complete this year’s Cannonball Read!

In the Garden of Beasts is the true story of the American ambassador to Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. William E. Dodd is a college professor at the University of Chicago. A quiet, Jeffersonian Democrat (and friend to Woodrow Wilson), his greatest wish is to finish his multi-volume history of the Old South. Plucked from his post, he moves his family: wife, son Bill and daughter Martha – to Berlin in the spring of 1933.

This is as much Martha’s story as it is Dodd’s. A wild young woman fleeing a bad marriage, she has literary aspirations but not much focus. She takes to the glittering Nazi social scene, and embarks on an energetic series of affairs. Her lovers are both high-ranking Nazis and Communist agents, and her behavior threatens Dodd’s standing.

Dodd himself is an outsider to the diplomatic corps. Dubbed the “Pretty Good Club”, they consist mostly of wealthy Ivy League graduates. Dodd is determined to live frugally, and even drives his own American-made car around town. This difference, and his unwillingness to “play along”, will make his job much harder in the years to come. The US government at this time is more concerned with Germany’s debt (and acquiring repayment) than with any human rights violations. Dodd is sent to Berlin with this goal in mind. As he and his family become witnesses to Hitler’s brutal rise and consolidation of power, his focus changes. Convincing Washington to act, however, proves difficult.

In the Garden of Beasts is an interesting, frustrating and ultimately sad read. Interesting, because Larson has the ability to put the reader right there in the action. Frustrating, because we can’t help but become angry at the inaction of the diplomatic community. Sad, of course, because we know what comes after. As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I recommend this book.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #24: The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey

More crime, but much more charming. This is one of the books my husband has brought home after hearing about it on Radio 4. He never reads them, but thinks I might like them, and I love him and think it’s the most romantic thing ever.

I had never heard about Josephine Tey before, and I don’t know if that’s strange. She died in 1952, so her novels qualify as classics, and, as wikipedia has just told me, The Daughter of Time was voted greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. I had no idea, and it makes me smile, because there is nothing particularly suspenseful or spooky about it. It’s just… charming. I have a feeling I’m going to use this word a lot in this review.

Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is in hospital with a broken leg, and in order not to go mad, he asks his friends to supply him with mysteries to solve. He ends up with reproductions of portraits of famous people, and is fascinated by the one of Richard III, a famously deceitful, murderous brute of a King, whose face, according to Grant, shows nothing but gentleness and suffering. With the help of a researcher at the British museum, Inspector Grant sets out to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, the young nephews Richard III is said to have killed.

All I know about British history is puzzled together from bits I have read in novels or seen in movies, and this particular episode was mostly unknown to me. For a British reader in 1952, it would have been one of the best-known bits of historical knowledge, I guess, which makes the novel exciting from the start. As it turns out, it’s a joy to read, and quite easy to follow even for the uninitiated (me). It’s a straightforward mystery, with new and astounding facts delivered to Grant’s hospital bed every day, and moving along at a steady pace. Grant is charming (there!), the minor characters are lovely (even better!), and even Richard III turns out to be a good man. Everything about this book made me feel warm and fuzzy; its old-fashionedness (The time it takes to find facts! Old school books have to be ordered or rummaged for in the nurses’ bookshelves, volumes leafed through in the British Museum, telegrammes waited for in hospital… Ah.), the goodwill and friendliness of the characters, the fact that the most recent bloodshed happened in the 15th century… This is a comfort read. The entire Josephine Tey boxset immediately went onto my Christmas wish list. I’ll be the happiest reader for the next few weeks.

lyndamk #cbr4 review #29: Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski

Between balls, dalliances, hunts, and eating, it is a wonder the leaders at the Congress of Vienna had any time to negotiate the future of Europe. It makes the politicians dealing with the fiscal cliff seem like a bunch of stodgy old monks. Read more at my blog …

ElCicco #CBR4 review #42: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is a good choice for fans of Brit lit in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. It’s witty with biting humor although it does lack some of the whimsey found in Wodehouse and Three Men. Amis’ writing has more of an edge and flirts with misanthropy, but manages not to fall head over heels into it. Protagonist Jim Dixon is a history lecturer at a provincial college. His advisor Welch is a pretentious bore, Welch’s wife is a shrew and his son Bertrand an arrogant snob with a hot girlfriend. Margaret is a single, not beautiful but  not ugly colleague and friend (perhaps more?) who seems emotionally unstable. Jim is closing the school term, trying to get published and to keep in Welch’s good graces so as to keep his position, but Jim hates them all. He is not quite a misanthrope, having kind impulses toward Margaret and good relations with a few chums. But there are fools whom he will not suffer — Welch, Bertrand, and his fellow boarder Johns, with whom he has an antagonistic combative relationship, reminiscent of “Spy vs. Spy”.

Jim seems unlucky throughout the book. At a weekend at Welch’s, he drinks too much, nearly sets fire to his room, antagonizes the host’s son and girlfriend, and offends Margaret. The editor who showed an interest in his research is getting ready to leave for a post in South America. And Jim doesn’t especially enjoy his chosen career or current post. The climax is the lecture he is to give on “Merrie England,” a chance to impress his supervisor and keep his job, but his drinking problem and desire to win the personal battle against Bertrand and Welch results in something quite different.

I think this book would be especially enjoyable to anyone who has spent time in graduate school, particularly studying history (as I did). Some of my favorite lines in the book relate to the graduate student grind. Jim became a Medievalist without really intending to and he hates his course of study. Reflecting on the title of his research (“The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485”), Jim reflects, “It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.” When a friend asks Jim if the work is any good, Jim asks what he means by “good.” The friend answers, “Well, is it any more than accurate and the sort of thing that gets turned out? Anything beyond the sort of thing that’ll help you to keep your job?” Jim replies, “Good God, no.”

Lucky Jim is loosely based on the life of Amis’ real life friend and poet Philip Larkin. I didn’t find Amis’ writing as funny/farcical as Wodehouse’s, but Jim, despite his sometimes obnoxious and childish behavior, is likable. The reader can see his inner decency when he tries to protect the feelings of female characters. His combat with Johns and Bertrand is often hilarious. Despite (or perhaps because of) circumstances, Jim is quite lucky in the end. A fun weekend read for autumn.

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #34-36: The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick

Target: Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-19

Profile: History, Nonfiction, Cartoons!

If I were being honest, I wouldn’t be able to include the first omnibus edition of Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History in this Cannonball, as I’ve read it enough to have dog ended every other page.  If I were being really honest, I’d have to admit that the book was the only reason I passed my Western Civ classes in high school and college.  But upon reading the second and third omnibuses, I felt it wouldn’t be fair to the series as a whole to leave out the first one that did such a good job of capturing my imagination as a child and a teenager, and instilled in me a love of history that survives to this day.

As with most ‘big’ projects, it’s easier to define Gonick’s Cartoon History by what it isn’t   It is not an attempt to professionally summarize the breadth of human history.  Nor is it just a comic rendering of western civilization’s greatest hits.  The books present a version of history that is entertaining on its own, capitalizing on the larger-than-life figures and bizarre incidents that riddle the history books.  Where archaeology and recorded history fail, Gonick fills in the blanks with the mythologies and legends of the cultures he’s examining.  He attempts to place these pieces of fiction within their factual contexts, such as the real war against Troy that formed the backdrop for Homer’s Iliad.  The result is a ‘dried out’ version of these stories, stripped of much of the supernatural or religious trappings, but given new life in the context of history.

Read the rest of the review…

lyndamk #cbr4 review #20: The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson

A hawk and a dove walk into a bar. Read more at my blog …

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #14: Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge

There was a film on the BBC a few years ago that nearly broke my heart. Beryl Bainbridge, then 70, was convinced she was going to die within the year, given that both her parents had died at 71. Her nephew made a film of those “last” months, following her around London and her hometown, Liverpool. It was beautiful and incredibly sad to see the old lady, wheezing yet still chain-smoking, revisit her past. It turned out she had the dates wrong, and she did not die that year, but that was hardly the point. It’s rare to be allowed a frank view of how our heroes and heroines deal with age and death. Someone not familiar with her writing would probably have chosen not to see behind the weirdness of that story, but having read a fair bit of her work, I saw the same eccentricity that pervades it, and loved her even more. And the way she chatted about the stories that made her, you could tell she was an expert storyteller.
Every Man For Himself, then, was always going to be a wonderful piece of writing. I think it helped that I don’t know much about the historical background of this short novel. Yes, that’s right, people, I have never seen Titanic! I know the facts from the wonderful exhibit in Liverpool’s Maritime Museum, and that’s pretty much it. But I know how Beryl Bainbridge deals with history, and that is not the way the movie did. (Hence some slightly disappointed reviews on goodreads.)

The novel starts in medias res, and for a few pages, I had no idea what was going on. After a while it turns out the story is seen through the eyes of Morgan, the adopted nephew of millionaire J.P. Morgan, who struggles with both his past and his future on his way back to his family in America. Surrounded by his peers, all young, rich and carefree, he is drawn to a mysterious trio of people he first sees while waiting to board the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Scurra, the most mysterious of them all, seems to know everyone on board and catches Morgan unaware by analysing his fears and illusions, heightening Morgan’s depression and unease. All the while, the Titanic steams towards disaster…

The obvious genius of the novel is that everybody knows what will happen in the end, and every little detail gains significance, from snippets of conversations about bad omens to the way the people on the upper deck seem utterly bored with their lives, yet they will be the ones to survive. Bainbridge has a field day playing with the readers’ knowledge of events. She weaves little facts into the fictional story, and everything seems completely believable. I can see how people looking for the big drama would be disappointed up until the last few pages, which managed to choke me quite a bit, but I loved the way Bainbridge stubbornly focussed on Morgan’s point of view. As in any good story, he does grow and learn, and it’s mostly thanks to the mysterious and not altogether likeable Scurra, who plays the role of a Mephistopheles. (See, I’m so proud of making all those links. I spare you my “Master and Margarita” theory.) In conversation with him, Morgan discovers and begins to doubt his morals and convictions, and in the end sees his peers and (adopted) class for what it is – something that stubbornly clings to the splendour of the sinking ship and ultimately lacks the willpower to swim to safety.
Every Man For Himself is a short novel, and a beautifully understated one. There are so many aspects that could have been elaborated. But the Titanic’s journey was a short one, and Beryl Bainbridge manages to cram just as much life, death, questions, doubts, mysteries and tragedies into a short novel. It’s a work of art. The movie, on the other hand, had Celine Dion…

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