Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon

luciaI have the terrible wonderful habit of browsing the books for sale whenever I’m in a thrift store or library; I like inviting serendipity. I don’t remember where or when I found this biography, but it was definitely serendipity; my taste for personal histories, especially of women, would have been enough to pick it up, but the ability to justify it as a possible source for research – and, better still, a source for the sort of details of everyday life in historic Europe that are so hard to come by – made it an easy sale.

Any reservations I had came from the fact that Andrea di Robilant is Lucia’s descendant. On the one hand, there’s romance in the “long-lost story discovered in family archives,” but on the other – mightn’t it be vanity publishing, making a book out of nothing very much? It was, however, cool that the portrait on the cover is indeed of her – a portrait that was deemed lost until he tracked it down. (This would be a bit too much National Treasure if it did not become apparent in the telling of the story that, because it was not a major work, nobody had ever bothered to go looking before.)

But, anyhow, I bought it and read it and enjoyed every minute of it, and it vastly exceeded anything I hoped it would be. I also found myself confronting a number of common myths about the past and even discovering a few surprising facts we don’t often consider at all. Here are a few: Continue reading “Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon”

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Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil

When I made the goal of posting once per month this year, part of the intention was to blow through some of the backlog of abandoned post ideas. Accordingly, a few months ago I read through the over 50 pieces sitting in the Blog folder. A majority were fragmentary, things I didn’t have any really developed thoughts about at the time and which, on review, I still don’t have much to say about; those were discarded. A handful were worthy of further development. And one or two were more or less completed but, for whatever reason, never quite satisfactory and never posted.

This is one of them.

It’s a bit odd to reread something I had no memory of and which is completely, absolutely out of date. Nearly 6 years after writing it, neither of the relationships written about in it still exist, or exist in the form written about. The questions asked are not ones I would ask now. Or rather – it is not the way I would ask them. And I think that is progress, which is about the only reason I’m mustering the courage to toss this out into the world at last. Continue reading “Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil”

With Liberty and Justice For All

I had a vague idea I might do something about Independence Day for my July post, but we were busily on vacation and there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to say, anyway, so I let it slide. In fact, my muse didn’t show up until a few days before the end of the month (right around the time a client requested that I do three months’ worth of work in the space of two weeks, which I take as more than excuse enough for this post being late), and when she did, she wasn’t bearing tidy platitudes. But she sure had something to say about Freedom. Continue reading “With Liberty and Justice For All”

The Lobster Mafia

“Don’t ever hoard buoys like that,” Allyson says as we hurtle down a country road. “The lobster mafia is real.”

I barely catch a glimpse of what she points at, but I know what she means. Every so often I’ve seen small houses almost completely covered by buoys in every combination of colors. Naïve urban outsider that I am, I had assumed they were meaningless kitschy decorations, like those old metal Coca-Cola signs you can buy at a certain type of antique store. Continue reading “The Lobster Mafia”

November Book Review: Passionate Minds

David Bodanis is the reason there is no toothpaste in our household – thanks to his book The Secret House (we use baking soda with just a touch of stevia instead). It may have been through that connection or by some other chance, but either way I was thrilled to discover this book: the tagline is

The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Chatelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world.

Impressively, Emilie du Chatelet, born in 1706, denied access to all formal education and scientific communities of the time, and all but forgotten now, did research that formed the foundation of the “squared” in E=mc2 and, separately, doing no research at all, theorized properties of light that wouldn’t be confirmed until 70 years later, among other notable accomplishments. This was a woman I needed to know more about. Continue reading “November Book Review: Passionate Minds”

October Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Why did soldiers in the 1800s fire rounds into their canned food?

Which British monarch was so fat he or she could not go down stairs, but had to be lowered through a trapdoor with a pulley?

Why was the aspidistra the indoor plant of choice in Victorian times?

I confess this was not originally intended as this month’s reviewed book; looking for something entertaining, and misled by the word “short,” I checked it out as my fluff book. However, it being both more serious and considerably longer than Bill Bryson’s other books (it is, in fact, 9 times longer than his “African Diary,” which I highly recommend, and which, at 49 pamphlet-sized pages, was only one evening’s reading for me), here we are.

Bryson is known chiefly as a humorist, and the origin of the book is explained with a comedian’s typical curiosity Continue reading “October Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life”

December Book Review: The Prince

The Prince has been on my reading list for the better part of fifteen years and I borrowed it over a year ago, so it is a bit ironic that my first reaction on finally cracking it open and reading the first few pages was, “Wow, this is so useful! I should have read it years ago!” That reaction fluxed and changed over the course of the book, and this is the story of how that happened.

Of course, The Prince is often spoken of in shocked terms as being an amoral book, and certainly, as the introduction to this edition readily admits, “Machiavelli’s chief contribution to political thought lies in his freeing political action from moral consideration.”

True, Machiavelli does not insist upon morality if that will lessen power. But neither does he completely ignore moral considerations Continue reading “December Book Review: The Prince”

Book Review: One Perfect Day – the selling of the American wedding

Growing up, I never believed I’d be one of those adults who “didn’t have time to read.” Couldn’t comprehend it. And yet… it’s funny how that works. So, to enforce my new goal of reading at least one educational book each month, I present Part One of a new monthly series of non-fiction book reviews.

Having spent our entire courtship and engagement fighting the consumeristic, wedding-industry fueled ideas of what you “must have” to make your wedding what it “should” be, when I ran across another review of this book not long after our wedding I thought it would make for an interesting read. It does. In fact, the hardest part of writing this review was choosing the right number of relevant quotations. The author, Rebecca Mead, has a refreshing ability to get at the heart of the issue, and I found at least one priceless line or paragraph on each page. Continue reading “Book Review: One Perfect Day – the selling of the American wedding”

Declarations and So On

Happy Independence Week.

While the Fourth of July is not my all-time favorite holiday, it is the most exciting one. The details of the story of how this nation came to be, and the characters that formed it, never get old. So on the appointed day this week, between BBQ and fireworks, I spent a few moments trying to imagine what it must have been like to be among the founders on the day they founded the United States.

Only, of course, it’s hard to say exactly what day that was. Adams thought July 2 would be the day in the history books, and there’s some thought the ceremony of signing the Declaration wasn’t until August. The war was won in 1781. Legally the colonies did not become a country until 1783. The Confederation didn’t give way to the Constitution – and the presidency of George Washington – until 1788.

So easy to think, as we troop down to the nearest open space to watch some fireworks, that the country burst forth in a similar blaze of glory on July 4, 1776. Nothing wrong with picking a day to mark the occasion, so long as we don’t forget that the real story doesn’t end with the Declaration of an intent to act. Just as with everything else, the work and the story that matters came after that.