“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.
Cannonball Read IV: Book #52/52
Dr. Nyiszli was a Jewish doctor who was picked to assist Dr. Mengele in the Auschwitz death camp during WWII. This wasn’t an easy book to read, as with any Holocaust book. It still astounds me that something so awful happened a mere 70 years ago.
I actually liked the fact that Dr. Nyiszli focused more on the day-to-day activities in the camp rather than the grisly experiments that Dr. Mengele has become known for. The experiments are mentioned a few times, but Dr. Nyiszli mostly performed autopsies for Dr. Mengele and didn’t actually assist with any experimentation.
Again, not an easy read, but a good look at Auschwitz from a slightly different perspective.
I am a Southern girl, born and raised in Georgia. If you are like me, and have that distinction, there are many singers and bands that are Southern and Georgian. The Allman Brothers Band is one of those bands and I have been a fan as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is when Gregg Allman married Cher, their picture on the cover of People magazine. Then there is the time in history when we were learning about the blues, and my teacher played “Statesboro Blues” on her guitar on front of the whole class. Then she asked each of us to write our own blues song to the same tune of that iconic melody. I’m pretty sure I have been in love with Gregg Allman since I was that little girl. His beautiful blonde hair, soulful voice and that hint of danger has long intrigued me, even as I have grown up and he’s grown older. I have seen the Allman Brothers Band in concert many times, and had the pleasure of seeing Gregg Allman & Friends on a couple of occasions. I’ve visited his brother Duane’s and their friend and band mate Berry Oakley’s graves at Rose Hill Cemetery. I’ve made a trek to the Big House, in Macon, the old home of the Brothers, now a museum. So of course, it was my duty and pleasure to read his autobiography, even though he might tell me secrets that might make me question my blind adoration after all these years.
I pre-ordered the book as soon as I could from Amazon. I was looking forward to reading Gregg’s life story. When the book finally arrived, I was in the middle of reading another book for Cannonball Read 4, and my husband took it upon himself to crack the spine of My Cross to Bear. The entire time he read, he kept telling me, “You aren’t going to like this.” Or he’d mutter, “This is the worst book I’ve ever read.” He was serious about his opinions. He told me the writing was terrible and was ridiculously paced. He stated Gregg’s narrative voice was like that of an old, rambling man, going from topic to topic. I insisted I had to read it for myself, no matter how bad the storytelling was; no matter how circuitous the narrative. No matter how sad and disappointed I might be learning the truth behind the soulful music I’d listened to all my life, I was still committed to knowing all I could.
I do give my husband credit for his description of Gregg’s voice in the book. I am unsure of how much he actually “wrote” of this autobiography, with Alan Light. I know he wrote a multitude of beautiful songs about heartbreak, longing, and love, but we aren’t all authors. The book reads like a long conversation, and Gregg meanders through each story in his life, like a lazy river, sometimes cool and refreshing, other times, lazy and hazy as it wanders around the bend. I imagined Gregg telling me the story of his life as he sits on an cracked and weathered porch, his languid voice lulling me into the time machine that takes us back to when he was a child, growing up in Tennessee and then in Florida. He tells me of being packed away to military school at age eight. But, as he tells me about those early years, anecdotes about the Sear’s guitar for $21.95 or the foot shooting party, sometimes, he suddenly changes the subject, discussing an event that happened just fifteen years ago. I really had to make sure I was paying attention, or else I would get lost in the shuffle of his life.
Gregg does honestly reveal all his missteps in love and drugs, but at the heart of this story, for me, was the deep love he had for his brother Duane and for writing and making music. Duane was Gregg’s tormentor, but Gregg seems to have the deepest love and affection for Duane, even after all these years since Duane’s tragic death in 1971. The music seems to come easy to Gregg. He doesn’t give any magical clues as to how he writes a song, admitting at one point, it might sound like he’s giving you a formula, but “it’s never that simple.” He admitted the song “Midnight Rider” is the one song he is most proud of in his career.
I am sure some readers will be fascinated by all the lovers, baby mamas, six wives, five children, alcohol, and the never ending supply and demand of drugs from pot, to coke, to heroin. I admit I was fascinated by his relationship with Cher. She was such an icon of the 70s and I remember watching Sonny and Cher and thinking how unique she was, an inspiration to all those girls out there, like I was, who weren’t considered traditional looking. I still remember signing with heartfelt triumph the song, “Half-Breed” at the top of my little girl lungs! There is more to the story than just the salacious parts. Sure, Gregg loves women; he’s still just as enamored with them after all this time. Thankfully, his love of drugs and alcohol is under control and even with a liver transplant, he is trying to live a more healthy lifestyle these days.
In addition to the life story that he tells, the book includes posters from gigs for the Allman Brothers, and photographs and other memorabilia to accompany the different phases in Gregg’s life and career. It was like flipping through old photo albums. I had time to peruse the pictures, looking at all the details of Gregg’s adventures. It felt as if I knew him better after reading his story. He’s hardly perfect by any means, but I felt privileged to get to know him just a little better and understand his music all the more. I wouldn’t recommend reading this book to just anyone. You would at least require love and affection for his music first, and then need the desire to spend a little time with an old man as he reflects on a journey, with pride and curiosity, at just how far he’s come and just how lucky and talented he really is.
Thomas Lynch is an undertaker/poet in a small town in America, and seems to be very good at both his jobs. In these he ponders, with humour and sadness, the often-misunderstood business of burial and its large-scale takeover by faceless corporations, Western notions of death and ritual, and the ties that make up homes and communities. He also discusses how much he hates his son’s cat and what he does when he doesn’t like poets.
Lynch is a talented story-teller, even making statistics and business information interesting, but it is his musings on the Big Questions, fate and fear and life and death that make this book worth reading. It isn’t uplifting in the conventional sense, there’s far too much realism and occasional bitterness, but it’s an enriching read that exudes camaraderie, leaving you feeling as if you’ve had a great and rambling conversation with a very intelligent and funny person down at the pub (although Lynch quit drinking-alcoholism in his life and family are the subject of one essay).
“We must be steady in our wounds, loyal to our doom, and patient in the machinery of heaven.”
“These Wonderful Rumours” refers to the ephemeral scuttlebutt of wartime: stories of parachuting nuns, invasions on bicycles, humble fishmongers as fifth columnists and so on. May Smith’s diaries 1939-1945 regards these with amused scepticism, but their author does find much to worry about with rationing, evacuees, air raids, and friends and relatives in the army. Smith worked as a primary school teacher in the English Midlands during the war, lived with her parents, and managed to lead an active social life despite the war and extra duties, which involved fending off the attentions of at least two suitors, lectures on English Literature and Modern History, and a great deal of shopping and tennis.
Her diaries, modelled on E.M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady (also published by Virago and an absolute delight) are engaging, often droll and occasionally irritating. Smith’s romantic life is particularly amusing; her entries on Poor Old Dougie or Freddie who is variously Dear and Faithless are a precursor to Bridget Jones in her attempts to figure out her emotions and decipher the codes of courtship:
“Wednesday, December 20th 1939: Received my post at dinnertime – cards and a large carrier bag containing the Promised Bird from Doug – though it was addressed to Mother. Very thrilled – a proper ‘Dougie’ touch. He doesn’t say it with flowers, oh no! Dougie has to shower birds. Howbeit, it looks very succulent, and I like poultry.”
There is a lot about hats and coats and dresses, and the details of life during the Blitz and observations on politics and the progress of the War are interesting and insightful. While the pace slightly drags towards the end of the volume, well, so did the war, highlighting how constant anxiety and sometime panic can become routine.
“Wednesday, July 10th 1940: Torrents of rain fell all day long. Rumbles of thunder also sounded – very ominously – this afternoon, whereat I received a frenzied note from Miss H, asking Was it Thunder or Bombs?’ Replied in consolatory vein, and shortly afterwards lightning appeared, confirming my diagnosis.”
The diaries serve as a view into how ordinary people outside London (often the focus of Blitz narratives) perceived the war, and how important community spirit and snatching as many good times as possible were. I enjoyed them very much; they make a good read with a cup of tea and a cosy window seat.
Don’t let the self-publishing and home photo cover fool you. Sally Watson is an accomplished and well-loved author of several juvenile and young adult fiction books published in the 1950’s – 1971. After taking a break from writing she began self-publishing new books, juvenile-adult level in 2006. Among these, is Tailwavers, her first autobiographical book, about her life with a variety of cats and her cat rescue work in England and the US, including correspondence with other cat-loving friends about her thoughts on many things, but always coming back to the cats in her life.
With the conversational tone of Tailwavers, it is less polished than her earlier books, but still highly entertaining. Sally’s humour and intelligence shine through as strong as ever. If you are already a fan of Sally Watson, you will enjoy this glimpse into her real life. But, you do not need to be familiar with Sally to enjoy the stories of the joys and sorrows of living and care-taking of cats which any cat owner can appreciate.
Sally is a true ailurophile (cat lover) and has written this book for like-minded people. My own Mr. Cat sat on my lap through much of time reading this. I was moved to both laughter and tears several times throughout the book and found it a nice, fun read.
(Full Disclosure: I am the web designer for booksbysallywatson.com and received a free copy of Tailwavers from Sally as payment. But, I do not receive any compensation for sales of her books, or for my review. I’m just a big fan!)
This book is subtitled “Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs,” and is a sampling of essays by mostly famous chefs about some oddments and debacles in their careers. Some are funny, some are sad, and most aren’t terribly catastrophic.
One of my favorite stories was Eric Ripert’s tale about how he became a chef. It’s mostly because he was a terrible waiter. Tony Bourdain’s entry is (of course) well written, entertaining & profane; Gabrielle Hamilton’s is annoying and self-important (sorry, I’m not a fan, even though I adore her restaurant).
The book is mostly entertaining, especially if you’re a foodie. Otherwise you’re probably not going to know who most of these people are, and care even less.
Cannonball Read IV: Book #50/52
This book is supposedly a “fictionalized account of a true story”, but is listed on Goodreads as nonfiction so I’m not sure EXACTLY what that means, but nonetheless, it’s a compelling novel about child abuse. Tuesday (named after actress Tuesday Weld) endures horrific physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her mother after the death of her older sister. Her sister had polio and died after complications from the Hong Kong flu.
Soon after her sister’s death, Tuesday’s mother receives a brain injury after a fall down the stairs. She’s never the same after that and blames Tuesday for killing her other daughter. Tuesday has a few younger brothers who are treated normally, so she just assumes that her mother hates her. She is always being “punished”, but never knows what she did to be in trouble. The physical abuse is horrific, but the mental abuse is awful as well. She is forced to stand facing the wall in the hallway whenever she is home. She is usually not fed dinner and if she is, her mother makes these disgusting concoctions to make her eat. She is not allowed to bathe and has to wear old, too small clothes to school so she gets made fun of.
Didn’t get your fill of electoral goodness? Read this book to see how politicians made it happen in 1960. Read more at my blog…