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Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.

Atheism in the ancient world?

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World - Tim Whitmarsh

In Battling the Gods Tim Whitmarsh counters the idea that atheism is a new phenomenon, a result of the 18th century European Enlightenment, by using reason, history, and a careful examination of written works from the classical ages of Greece and Rome. Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge, states in the Preface that his book is a work of history and that his goal isn’t to prosthelytize for or against atheism as a philosophical position, and I found that to be true, though he does believe that dismissing atheism as a recent fad can make the persecution of atheists seem like a less serious problem than the persecution of religious minorities.


In the opening chapter Whitmarsh argues convincingly that adopting a skeptical attitude toward miracles or supernatural beings would not be a strange, unheard of position at any time in history, and that there would have always been a spectrum of belief and unbelief. After this initial chapter the book is divided into four sections--Archaic Greece, Classical Athens, The Hellenistic Era, and Rome--and it’s in these that the author delves deeply into the written works of ancient poets, philosophers, historians, and playwrights, looking for evidence of atheism from the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers in early Greece to the rise of Christianity during Constantine’s rule of the Roman Empire.


As a history I found the book fascinating, but because I’m less invested than the author in dissecting texts to discover which particular people from the ancient past may have held atheist views, my interest flagged at times. Obviously the author needed to do these close and considered readings to support his contention that atheism has been around since at least the dawn of history, and considering the scholarly slant and serious subject matter, it’s a highly readable book and far from dry. Like any well written history, more than a few parts are deeply moving--the chapters on the death sentence imposed on Socrates and the long ranging repercussions of that act, for instance.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/atheism-in-the-ancient-world

Detailed and fascinating account of America’s first First Family

The Washingtons: George and Martha, "Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love" - Flora Fraser

While this doesn’t flow with the feeling of a novel, source material is too scant for that, Flora Fraser has still managed to put together a fascinating, often moving, portrait of America’s first First Family, and through them a history of the Revolutionary War and the early years of the United States, including the issue of slavery since the Washingtons had enslaved people in their service. Unfortunately, very little correspondence between George and Martha Washington survives, Martha burned all that was in her possession when George died, but Fraser fleshes out their life and relationship using what there is, including diary entries, letters written to and from other people, and precise requests for clothing, cloth and other goods that the couple made to merchants.


The book’s meticulous details are the basis of its strength, and Fraser includes all her sources in the Notes section. I was especially interested in the opening chapters featuring George Washington as a pragmatic young man and the early days of his courtship of and then marriage to Martha. I knew least about those times, and I enjoyed encountering Martha as attractive, wealthy young widow, managing her first husband’s estates and raising their children on her own. This interlude of independence served her well when George left their home in Mount Vernon to lead the Continental Army.


In spite, or maybe because, of the many difficulties in their lives, including the premature death of all of Martha’s children, the relationship between the Washingtons was charmingly close, and George’s military colleagues were glad when Martha joined him at army encampments because his mood always improved when she was around. The book goes on to cover the politically tumultuous years after the Revolution, George’s two presidential terms, and the brief time the Washingtons were able to enjoy retirement from public life. The last chapter concludes with Martha’s death in 1802, three years after George passed away.


Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/detailed-and-fascinating-of-americas-first-first-family

Entertaining story inspired by two of Jane Austen’s unfinished novels

Brinshore: A sequel to 'Emma and Elizabeth', inspired by Jane Austen's unfinished manuscripts, 'The Watsons' and 'Sanditon'. (The Watson Novels Book 2) - Ann Mychal

Open any of Jane Austen’s six completed novels and you’re guaranteed a moving story told with wit and insight, but what fan doesn’t wish Austen had time to complete more books. That’s why I treasure well done Austen-inspired fiction, so when I discovered Ann Mychal had written Brinshore, her second Austen themed book, I was full of hopeful anticipation. Mychal’s first novel, Emma and Elizabeth, is among my favorite adaptations. It completes Austen’s intriguing unfinished novel The Watsons by telling the story of two Watson sisters, Emma and Elizabeth, daughters of an impoverished clergyman. The girls were raised separately under very different conditions, but reunited when they were both young ladies. Brinshore continues the tale, this time focusing on their daughters Emma (named after her mother) and Anne, and it takes its inspiration from another of Austen’s novel fragments, Sanditon.


Cousins Emma Osborne and Anne Musgrave could not be more different in temperament. Emma is an outspoken girl, direct in her opinions in the mode of her Mr. Darcy-like father, Lord Osborne, while Anne is a gentler, nature-loving soul who goes into rhapsodies over a piece of seaweed. Neither girl has experienced the hardships of their mothers because both of those women married well. The novel opens in 1816 so the wars with Napoleon are over and Captain Charles Blake will soon be returning to their community, a circumstance that Emma awaits with much excitement.


The end of the wars also mean that people are ready to enjoy themselves more, and in that spirit the girls’ utterly practical, unromantic Aunt Harding (reminiscent of Charlotte Collins) shocks everyone with a big announcement. She’s decided to sell the Chichester house she shared with her now deceased husband to move to Brinshore, a tiny seashore town not far from Sanditon, and she’s inviting both her nieces to come stay with her. Anne is excited right away--the seashells she can collect! The tide pools she can sketch! But Emma is indifferent, she’d rather go to more fashionable Brighton, until she learns that Captain Blake will be spending time in nearby Sanditon.


Emma has known Charles Blake since childhood, he was like a big brother to her, but while he was away at war she’s fallen in love from afar. He’s beneath her in station, but that’s not a problem. While her grandmother hopes she’ll marry an earl or duke, her parents treasure their own loving relationship and would approve the match if it would make Emma happy. The problem resides in Charles himself. He is so good natured and affable to all that it’s difficult to determine if he returns Emma’s affection in kind. Plus he seems to have a lot more in common with Emma’s equally amiable and nature-obsessed cousin Anne, a situation Emma is blind to.


Add to this mix Mr. Fitzroy, who is working with Charles Blake on some mysterious, yet to be disclosed project. He and Emma bump heads immediately, almost literally, when Emma steps into the street without looking and is practically knocked down by his gig. When she demands that he take note of her now muddied frock he responds, “Charming, though a little too fancy for shopping.” (19%) He believes she’s spoiled; she thinks he’s rude. Unfortunately (or not?), they’ll encounter each other again and again through their connection with Charles Blake.


There are thrilling intimations of Austen throughout the story, including characters and well-known lines from her novels, but Emma hasn’t read any of Austen’s books. When Mr. Fitzroy gives her a copy of Pride and Prejudice she at first has no interest, assuming by its title that it’s a book of moralizing sermons, maybe by Mr. Fordyce. Because she’s attractive, clever, rich, and tries her hand at matchmaking, Emma Osborne has qualities in common with Austen’s more well-known Emma, which can make her a little hard to love sometimes (Austen described her Emma as a character that no-one but herself would like much), but her boldness leads to acts of courage and compassion, and she’s certainly no snob, so she won my heart.


Mychal’s book also has some of Austen’s wonderful humor. Emma’s Aunt Harding, for instance, is as besotted with Brinshore as Mr. Parker from Austen’s Sanditon is of his town, and the two of them compete ridiculously in this book, each scheming to make their chosen locale the next hot spot. Austen assumed her readers were aware of the historical circumstances of her stories since they were written during the time that they were set, but I enjoyed all the explicit touches of history Mychal adds to her story.

Witty and entertaining, Mychal has breathed new life into a novel remnant Austen had to leave incomplete, creating a story with appealing characters, complicated courtships, emotion tugging family dynamics, a solemn deathbed promise, and a deeply satisfying ending. Add to all that the scenic beachside setting and I’m happy to report Brinshore pleased me as much as its predecessor, more even because of the added pleasure of catching up with old friends.


Originally posted on austenprose.com, which supplied me with a copy of Brinshore for review. Review opinions are mine.

Source: http://austenprose.com/2015/10/05/brinshore-the-watson-novels-book-2-by-ann-mychal-a-review

Silly, colorful, suspenseful, fun in a setting I’d love to visit

The Chess Queen Enigma: A Stoker & Holmes Novel (Stoker & Holmes Novels) - Colleen Gleason

This is the third crime-solving adventure of Mina Holmes, the niece of Sherlock, and Evaline Stoker, the vampire-hunting sister of Bram, but their partnership is still uneasy to say the least. While petite Evaline is physically strong and highly impulsive, ready at a moment’s notice to barge in bashing heads and staking hearts, ungainly Mina is instead methodical in temperament, analytical in thinking, and clumsy in movement.


In spite of their differences, Mina and Evaline are both intent on unmasking and capturing The Ankh, an evil villainess they’ve been chasing since the first book, but Irene Adler (boss to Mina and Evaline, and “The Woman” to Mina’s Uncle Sherlock) and  Princess Alexandra have asked (ordered) them to spend their time chaperoning Princess Lurelia of Betrovia instead.The highly delicate diplomatic situation between Betrovia and Britain dates back to Elizabeth I and involves love, betrayal, secret treasure, and the mysterious missing piece of an elaborate chess set. It’s important that Princess Lurelia be coddled and protected at all costs lest the two countries have another falling out, but the Princess is attacked almost at once, at the ball in her honor of her visit.


This series is silly, suspenseful, occasionally moving, and a lot of fun. I love the sometimes irritated banter between Mina and Evaline, and I enjoy seeing the world through their very different perspectives. I really adore the setting. The the two young women inhabit a colorful, Victorian, steam-powered London that would make a great travel destination. It’s a city layered with multi-leveled walkways connected by coin-driven mechanical lifts that keep those who are short on funds down below. While the higher levels of this London are amazing, gleaming, and gorgeous, complete with clever clockwork devices, animated twinkling lights, and the opulent upper floors of  skyscrapers so tall they have large balloons to act as air anchors, the lower levels of the city are dirty, dank and dark, and the haunt of criminals.

The Chess Queen Enigma doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, but several things are left unresolved, leading me to hope there will be a fourth book. I read an ebook advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss. Review opinions are mine.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/silly-colorful-suspenseful-fun-in-a-setting-id-love-to-visit

The krazy kapers of the Kopp sisters

Girl Waits with Gun - Amy Stewart

When the three Kopp sisters drove into town, they had no idea it would unleash a crazy chain of events and a world of trouble. The combative owner of a local silk factory ran them down with his automobile, flipping and crushing their horse drawn buggy, and then refused to pay for the damages. Constance Kopp kept after Henry Kaufman for restitution, their funds were limited and it was only right that he should compensate the sisters, but she had no idea how aggressive, antagonistic and dangerous he would be. Kaufman and his goons threatened their lives, set fire to their home, threw bricks through their windows, and shot bullets around the isolated family farm where sisters lived by themselves. But the Kopp women, especially six-foot-tall no-nonsense Constance, weren’t about to back down. They armed themselves, patrolled their property, and with the help of police set traps to catch their tormentors.  


One of the best things about this lively, entertaining book is that it’s based on a true story--the newspaper articles printed in the text are real and the catchy title “Girl Waits With Gun” was one of the headlines. Other than the bare facts not a lot is known about the actual sisters, but the author did a great job creating distinct personalities for them. While the story doesn’t have the fastest pace it is suspenseful, and I loved reading all the colorful and evocative details about life in the early days of the last century.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/the-krazy-kapers-of-the-kopp-sisters

Those who are innocent have nothing to fear?

Farthing - Jo Walton

Deftly blended, this combination of an alternate world history with an English country house mystery opens in 1949, but it’s not exactly the 1949 or England we know. Eight years earlier a group of conservative, anti-semitic politicians known as the “Farthing set” made peace with Nazi Germany, securing Britain’s borders after most of continental Europe had fallen to Hitler. The Germans continue to fight the Soviets, the American president is isolationist Charles Lindbergh, and the Jews left in Europe are living a nightmare.


Against this background, the aristocratic, politically powerful Farthing set comes together for a country weekend. The daughter of one of the couples, Lucy Kahn, is deeply in love and happily married to David, a Jewish man, so she’s surprised that her parents have invited them to join this gathering at her old family home. If it was up to her they’d skip it, she doesn’t like this group and they see her as a race traitor, but David thinks the invitation is a gesture of reconciliation so they go. But when they wake up the first morning they discover that a powerful politician has been murdered in his bed, and it quickly becomes clear that whoever did this is trying to frame David.


The story alternates between two very different voices. Lucy’s chapters chat to readers in the first person, while the point of view of Inspector Carmichael, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate the crime, is told through the third person. Carmichael is a principled, thoughtful man who has secrets of his own--he’s a homosexual. Though he’s working diligently to uncover the truth, he’s being pressured by his superiors to just arrest David and close the case.

Jo Walton’s versatility amazes me. The first books I read by her involved a simulation of Plato’s Republic, set up by the goddess Athena on the ancient island of Atlantis, but this is obviously a very different book, and she’s written it from two highly contrasting points of view. Tightly plotted, the tension builds quickly and continuously in Farthing, so by the time I was 80% in my heart was pounding and the book was impossible for me to put down. It’s the first book in a trilogy that I look forward to continuing once my adrenaline comes back down to normal levels.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/those-who-are-innocent-have-nothing-to-fear

September Books

Work has been slow this month. The downside? Less money. The upside? More reading! Some reviews are still to come. 


Golden Age: A novel (Last Hundred Years: a Family Saga) - Jane Smiley The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate (Icons) - Karen Armstrong

 Indexing - Seanan McGuire Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language - Rosemarie Ostler Brinshore: A sequel to 'Emma and Elizabeth', inspired by Jane Austen's unfinished manuscripts, 'The Watsons' and 'Sanditon'. (The Watson Novels Book 2) - Ann Mychal The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Homes - Judith Flanders

   The Chess Queen Enigma: A Stoker & Holmes Novel (Stoker & Holmes Novels) - Colleen Gleason The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World - David Jaher The Moonspinners - Mary Stewart Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life - Peter Ackroyd

  A Calculated Life - Anne Charnock Farthing - Jo WaltonMost Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War - Steve Sheinkin Lady Byron and Her Daughters - Julia Markus


Golden Age: A novel (Last Hundred Years: a Family Saga)
by Jane Smiley
Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/september-books

Human, or not?

A Calculated Life - Anne Charnock

This is a slow starting but ultimately moving  “wow!” of a story, set in a dystopian future Manchester with three types of “humans”: humans with a moderate amount of genetic engineering to help them resist social evils like addiction, genetically engineered humans who have been enhanced with implants to make them smarter, and simulants or “created” humans who have been completely bio-engineered to have beyond genius level brains that can process huge amounts of data for their employers. Simulants, of course, have never been children and they have no families, so they live in regulated dorm-like residences. There has been some tinkering with the simulant models to make them more personable, but giving them a larger emotional scope could backfire by decreasing their functionality, so they are carefully monitored for any deviations.


Jayna, one of these newer simulants, uses her stellar data crunching skills to forecast social and economic trends at the offices of Mayhew and McCline where she tries to interact smoothly with both types of more normal humans.These humans interest her greatly in spite, or maybe because, of the fact that she often has to correct their faulty work, and the slow start I mentioned is no criticism because it’s fascinating to be inside her head as she interprets the world around her.


Jayna starts to believe that both her personal life and work-related predictive skills would be enhanced by experiencing more variety and  texture, which draws her slowly into an increasingly dangerous relationship with Dave, an un-implant-enhanced human who works in the company archives but has a side business selling honey. Dave’s grandfather had been a rebellious, freethinking college professor, placing Dave very low in the social hierarchy, so he lives in the high-rise, slum-like outskirts of town, past the comfortable upper middle class houses of humans with implants, and beyond the citrus groves that must be part of the English landscape as a result of climate change.


As new understandings and sensations open to Jayna--some as simple as the smell of a fresh brewed cup of coffee--she feels compelled to continue her risky encounters with Dave, but if she’s caught she could be wiped clean and reprogrammed by “the constructor”, the entity who supplies the simulant workers to businesses.


The author creates a strong connection between hyper-intelligent but naive Jayna and the reader--though anxious about the possible consequences of Jayna’s actions I was cheering her on--and the world building of this chilling, socially stratified future Manchester is excellent, and introduced naturally through Jayna’s interactions with the people who work at her office and the simulants who share her housing compound. The building tension of the story kept me hooked, and the ending left me a lot to think about. I listened to the well done audio version of this unusual but compelling book.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/human-or-not

History that reads like a political thriller

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War - Steve Sheinkin

Written for middle school age children, this book races along like a political thriller and will hook most readers, this adult included, with its all too real story from the Vietnam War era. I was in high school when the top secret Pentagon Papers were printed in newspapers around the country, so I remember Daniel Ellsberg and the revelations he made public, but author Steve Sheinkin fills in details that were unknown at the time, at least by me.


For people who weren’t alive then, this history will present them with an unsettling look at the motivations of past presidents, both Democratic and Republican. None of them wanted to be the first American leader to lose a war, so the military action in Vietnam dragged on and on, while the number of people killed continued to climb with no possible victory in sight. Watergate and Nixon’s eventual resignation are covered as part of the events surrounding the release of the Pentagon Papers.

It was a very different cultural climate then--a divisive time when four students protesting the war were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State University--but there are obvious parallels to even that story in some of today’s news headlines. The book finishes with a “hero or villain?”  discussion of Edward Snowden and his more recent actions exposing classified CIA documents. This is a thorough and thoughtful introduction for young people that will be interesting for many adults too.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/history-that-reads-like-a-political-thriller

Danger in paradise--re-reading a book I’ve loved for more than 40 years

The Moonspinners - Mary Stewart

This beautifully written, utterly charming romantic thriller kept my heart pounding in terrified suspense, even though my original copy of the book is falling apart because I’ve read the story so many times. When I was twelve or thirteen, Mary Stewart was a favorite author of everyone I knew who loved to read--my mother, her friends, me, and eventually my younger sisters--and of all Stewart’s books it was The Moon-Spinners that siren-called me back to its pages again and again.


Nicola Ferris is on holiday in Crete, surrounded by age-old ruins, sunny skies, and colorful wildflowers. While hiking among fragrant lemon groves on the craggy hills of the White Mountains, she impulsively follows the path of flying egret and runs into an Englishman who’s been shot, yet won’t tell her what happened and just wants her to go away and forget she ever saw him, though he obviously needs help. But as Nicola continues her vacation, enjoying the beautiful scenery and relaxing with her cousin, she can’t help noticing details that draw her back to the mystery and into danger.


I’m not normally a reader who enjoys a lot of description in books, but in The Moon-Spinners it’s so gorgeous and transporting I relish every word and image. While the story is set firmly and very compellingly in the all-too-real world, Stewart’s writing is laced with ancient myths and literary allusions.  


The novel was written in the early 1960’s and Nicola shares some of the attitudes of that era, a time when men were leaders, male superiority was casually accepted by just about everyone, and the ideal for women was to be safely put up on a pedestal, but Nicola strains against those strictures too because she’s observant, quick-witted, and independent. It had been decades since my last reading, and delving back into The Moon-Spinners was like going on an archaeological dig through layers of my own worldview, helping me remember, even re-feel, some of my earliest understandings of life and love and the kind of person I wanted to be, since I was brought up surrounded by those early 60’s assumptions too, before everything started changing just a few years later in the decade.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/danger-in-paradise-re-reading-a-book-ive-loved-for-more-than-40-years

A quick look at Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life - Peter Ackroyd

This very short biography of Victorian author Wilkie Collins is breezy in style and it skims the surface of his colorful life. Readers are given facts about his childhood, oddly shaped body, dislike of marriage, two mistresses, friendship with Charles Dickens, travels abroad, and illnesses, but with only 233  small size pages of text there isn’t room to go into much depth about them all.


I would have liked to learn more about how the two mistresses managed--their relationships with Collins overlapped, and though he provided for them and their children as best he could his refusal to marry put them both in a difficult situation. I also would have enjoyed  a larger sense of history from the book, and deeper insights into life in Victorian England, but as the subtitle indicates this is “A Brief Life” and I did come away from the book with new perspectives on Wilkie Collins.


I was most fascinated by the ongoing overview of the books and plays Collins wrote that’s integrated into his personal history, with the plots and characters of those works put into the context of his life and time. This quick introduction to Wilkie Collins is like an intriguing appetizer that whets the appetite for more.

I read an ebook advanced review copy of this book provided to me at no cost by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/a-quick-look-at-wilkie-collins

Rapping, and ectoplasm, and ghosts, oh my!

The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World - David Jaher

While the 1920’s are well known for flappers, jazz, and speakeasies, I wasn’t as aware that séances  were so popular in both America and Europe, but it makes sense. Lots of people had lost loved ones to the double tragedies of WWI and the worldwide flu epidemic that followed, and modern spoken-word transmission wonders like the telephone and wireless radio made communication across distant planes of existence seem possible, even likely. So likely, the venerable Scientific American magazine held a contest offering a lot of money to any medium who could convince an investigative committee that their powers of summoning the dead were real. But though scientists were open-minded about the possibilities of contact with those now residing in the great beyond, the subject remained highly controversial because many religious people were horrified by the spiritualism craze.


Author David Jaher tells this intriguing history with such immersive detail that I actually started to feel a little creeped-out while reading about the dead rising in my dimly lit bedroom, an effect that was enhanced when the book’s cover literally glowed in the dark after I finally turned off the light (an unsettling but potent design choice). But along with its interesting historical insights, my favorite parts of the book involved its compelling portraits of the living, not the conversations of the dearly departed--though I did love picturing Summerland, reputed home of those who have passed on, where one no-longer-living young man claimed he could enjoy a celestial strain of whiskey and astral cigars.


I knew Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had some mystical interests, but I had no idea how consumed he became. He made several extensive tours of America promoting the “new religion” of spiritualism, the only religion, he believed, that could be proved true by science. Henry Houdini also plays a large role in the spiritualism controversies reported in this book. He hoped communication with the dead was possible because he longed to have contact with his beloved mother, but unfortunately the master magician could see through all the mediums’ very amazing tricks and slights of hand. Houdini became one of the judges of the Scientific American contest, and he made it his mission to debunk all spiritualist frauds, a relentless activity that put him at odds with his equally but oppositely obsessed friend Doyle.


The medium the book spends the most time with is the “witch” of the title, charming Mina Crandon who was known as “Margery”. She was the best hope of those running the Scientific American contest, because she was educated and never took money for exhibiting her powers, factors which made her seem more credible than the other mediums they tested, but there ended up being  a lot of twists and turns to her story.


Jaher’s book is a fascinating and well told slice of history. Based on how vivid and readable the book is I was unsurprised to learn he’s a screenwriter. The fact that he’s also a professional astrologer did make my eyebrows raise just a bit.


I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/rapping-and-ectoplasm-and-ghosts-oh-my

A detailed backstory of the places we call home

The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Homes - Judith Flanders

This copiously researched 500 year history of homes in Europe and America has an almost overwhelming amount of detail, but is so fascinating I kept interrupting the lives of people around me to share something I had just read. Stretching from the tiny, crowded, windowless shacks of our ancestors to the paradigm shifting development of modern suburbs, Judith Flanders has written an eye-opening account.


Included in its scope are 500 years of evolving attitudes about family, marriage, children, gender roles, manners, human waste disposal, how brightly lit a home needs to be, when privacy is required, and what having a clean home means. Flanders describes the difficult ways people got water into their houses before plumbing, how meals were cooked over an open fire (stew was the main menu item for a long time), and how the Industrial Revolution came about. The effects of religion, technology, and changing economic circumstances are explored, and one book-long theme involves home versus house, and the fact that some languages and cultures don’t make a distinction between the two words.


There were all sorts of oddities I didn’t expect. At different points in history beds used to be kept in the parlour for show, sand was put on the floor to soak up grease and wax, people shared beds with their servants, and what little furniture there was stayed pushed against the wall and only moved into the center as needed--the better not to trip over it in the interior dimness that was standard for hundreds of years.


Another thing that interested me is that preserved historic houses are mainly the best of the best, not representative of where most people lived, and they are also the most recent examples of their kind--no one would have saved earlier inferior dwellings as they were replaced. For instance, as awful as they are the slave quarters on view for tourists are actually upgrades, and vast improvements over what enslaved people had to endure for most of the history of slavery in the American South.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/a-detailed-backstory-of-of-the-places-we-call-home

The language angle on American history

Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language - Rosemarie Ostler

Once the Revolutionary War ended, the grammar wars began. What sort of English should the citizens of the brand new, still experimental, democracy of the United States speak? Some wanted to make a break with the fusty old English of their former British overlords, while others thought it more seemly and reputable to stick with traditional standards as their young country took its place on the world stage. Both sides agreed on the compelling importance of grammar--many early American homes had only two volumes in their “libraries”--a Bible and a grammar book.


Founding Grammars is a history of the United States and its people as seen through the very interesting angle of language and education. Filled with fascinating facts and lots of interesting characters, the book begins with Noah Webster and his personal quest to update American English, and ends with the heated controversy of 1961 (and beyond) over changes made in third edition of the dictionary that bears Webster’s name--a controversy that still continues today in internet arguments over prescriptive versus descriptive grammar. Other historical figures in the book include Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Davy Crockett, Mark Twain, and publisher Horace Greeley.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/20/the-language-angle-on-american-history

Where “once upon a time” doesn’t lead to “happily ever after”

Indexing - Seanan McGuire

Fairy tales are real! And that’s not a good thing. Do we really want whole towns falling asleep for 100 years because a Sleeping Beauty’s story has gone active? In this book fairy tales are like a constantly mutating force of nature that’s trying to manifest in our “real” world, so of course there's a secret government agency, the ATI Management Bureau, whose agents spend their time running between  potential story disasters in the struggle to keep us all safe.


Most of the members of the team we follow have had their own lives almost derailed by fairy tales--there’s a Snow White (who’s haunted by the smell of apples and pursued by determined woodland creatures), a cobbler elf (who’s constantly trying to make, fix or organize things), an evil stepsister (who has to suppress her natural urge to kill other team members) and a Pied Piper (who’s new on the job and is having a hard time adjusting to her changed reality.)


The book has an urban fantasy tone that’s light on romance, somewhat dark, often funny, and very imaginative. Seanan McGuire knows a lot about fairy tales, myths, and nursery rhymes, which she uses to great effect. As a bibliophile I can’t resist a good “stories are real!” motif (another example being Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.) Indexing began its life as a Kindle Serial, with chapters released every few weeks, but I listened to the audio version, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal, who is fantastic at giving each character a distinctive voice--a great boon since I was “reading” while driving.

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/17/where-once-upon-a-time-doesnt-lead-to-happily-ever-after

He may not have been the man we thought he was

St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate (Icons) - Karen Armstrong

Since the Apostle St. Paul is known for pronouncements like, “Wives, be subject to your husband as though to the Lord,” and “Women should keep silent at the meeting...if there is something they want to know they should ask their husbands at home,” it’s no wonder many people consider him misogynistic. Except it turns out he probably didn’t write those words and wouldn’t have had those sentiments, according to evidence cited by Karen Armstrong in this fascinating little book that attempts to set the record straight by taking its readers back into biblical times.


Armstrong almost always manages to open up my mind and turn my thinking around. Here she combines a careful reading of the texts attributed to Paul with the latest biblical scholarship and an in-depth look at the history of the time to make her case. When examined closely, Armstrong contends, the quotations above appear to have been inserted awkwardly into Paul’s letters, probably by later followers, and they contradict the main thrusts of Paul’s message which is largely egalitarian. He was a champion of the poor, and insisted on gender, ethnic, and class equality--Armstrong says that in Paul’s congregations there seem to have been about equal numbers of male and female leaders.


How ideas about Paul got so inverted is a moving, sometimes gritty story involving long held Jewish traditions, the clashing beliefs among early pre-church “Christian”  leaders, changing historical circumstances, the fact that Jesus didn’t make the imminent return to the world that his believers had at first expected, and the often brutal ways Rome governed conquered people in the outposts of its empire. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the varied cultural groups Paul preached to in those Roman outposts--Armstrong describes their histories, philosophical mindsets, and religious backgrounds.


Armstrong delves deeply into Paul’s life, travels, and beliefs. The Jesus and Paul presented in this book are captivatingly real, flesh and blood men living in difficult times, intent on their missions in spite of the bodily dangers that drew their way. There are only 115 pages of text in this book, but they are backed up by 18 pages endnotes citing Armstrong’s sources.  

Source: http://jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/he-may-not-have-been-the-man-we-thought-he-was