Tuesday, November 7, 2017

This Victorian Life by Sarah A. Chrisman --- Book Review

Book Description (from Goodreads): "Part memoir, part micro-history, this is an exploration of the present through the lens of the past. We all know that the best way to study a foreign language is to go to a country where it's spoken, but can the same immersion method be applied to history? How do interactions with antique objects influence perceptions of the modern world? From Victorian beauty regimes to nineteenth-century bicycles, custard recipes to taxidermy experiments, oil lamps to an ice box, Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman decided to explore nineteenth-century culture and technologies from the inside out. Even the deepest aspects of their lives became affected, and the more immersed they became in the late Victorian era, the more aware they grew of its legacies permeating the twenty-first century. Most of us have dreamed of time travel, but what if that dream could come true? Certain universal constants remain steady for all people regardless of time or place. No matter where, when, or who we are, humans share similar passions and fears, joys and triumphs. In her first book, Victorian Secrets, Chrisman recalled the first year she spent wearing a Victorian corset 24/7. In This Victorian Life, Chrisman picks up where Secrets left off and documents her complete shift into living as though she were in the nineteenth century."

This is the kind of book I really love and, in fact, this was one of the most interesting books I've read in a long time. However, the author's attitude was a big turn off for me. In several cases throughout the book, Chrisman discusses some of the negative attention they receive for living an out-of-the-norm lifestyle. Granted, this is part of her describing their reality so I wasn't irritated that she brought it up, I was more annoyed by her attitude about it when I thought about my own experience. When I opened up Facebook the next day to find another article on them based solely around the fact that people are mean to the Chrismans, it just rubbed me the wrong way.

 I, too, live an out-of-the-norm lifestyle. I have nine children whom I homeschool. I choose to wear long skirts and long hair and remain unemployed. I drive an enormous van. People stare and lift a finger to count when we drive by. I get all kinds of snotty comments, rude questions, and invasions on my privacy and lifestyle. What I've found over the years is my defensive actions and snotty comments back only feed the fire. The meaner I am back to people like this, the more attention I give them, the worse it is for me. Once I started holding my head high and refusing to apologize for my choices, I was amazed at how people started complimenting and encouraging us. All that to say, when all I see on this couple is them complaining to the media about not being accepted in a society that promotes diversity, (a phrase she repeats on multiple occasions in her narrative) it lowers my esteem for them quite a bit. In Victorian society, one conformed to the norm or one was ostracized by every so-called decent member of society. I guess what I'm trying to say is if one is going to take the road less traveled, one must be prepared for the opposition. Discussing the disappointment privately is appropriate---complaining to the media and expecting people to conform to what suits you is not. (See Butchart Gardens story).

 Now on to the less-bad bits. Besides all the atheistic or pantheistic nods to humanism, macro-evolution, and other ridiculous notions, the author presented herself as an intelligent woman. For the most part, the narrative was well-written. In fact, I had a long discussion with my husband about how publishers and editors really need to hold authors to a higher standard concerning grammar and subject matter. Almost everything I read nowadays is dumbed down to the level of a fourth grader. One would argue that this is the reading level of the average American adult in these times---I would argue back that rising standards usually result in those who will rise up to meet them. Chrisman is obviously well-read---her voice makes that clear. I was encouraged to seek out some of the earlier novels and nonfictions in hopes of finding other intelligently written material. In fact, I'm off to my favorite used book store this morning to do that very thing. 

Regarding the editing and photography---part of me wants to say the book could do with some serious editing and professional photography; part of me finds it endearing that she would have a friend do her photos. She obviously looks very joyful and at peace in her photos---something she may not have done with a more professional set up invading her space. As for editing, I always blame that on the publishing company. They're being hired and trusted to present her in the best light---authors must hold paid editors to a higher standard.

 I admire the Chrismans' research on so many things: the Hershey's company, cycling, and some very interesting bits regarding the regulation of time and why timepieces are made with jewels. I'd always wondered about some of these things and Chrisman does an excellent job explaining the whys. I loved all her talk of settings as we are from the Pacific Northwest and enjoyed a brief spell of living in Skagit County near Deception Pass and the Chuckanut Drive that she describes. I know this area well and was able to imagine all the places she described. We spent a lovely morning in her town of Port Townsend, one day about seven years ago, admiring the Victorian homes on our way to pick up our Yorkie.

 I think the thing that just left a sour taste in my mouth was how the author presented herself. Besides the previously mentioned issues, there were a few times when I thought she was either seriously exaggerating a situation or she was just an awfully snobbish and self-righteous boor. She has a way of making others "less learned" than she seem like pitiful simpletons. When describing a memory of ladies chatting about cell phones in a restaurant, she actually describes herself running from the table and spewing her tea into a bathroom sink because she was laughing so hard at their ignorance. Either she is an absolutely obnoxious and immature human being or she has a vivid imagination. Either way, nothing disfavors someone in my eyes more than snobbish, know-it-all behaviour.

 On a positive note, my good opinion once lost is not lost forever so within ten minutes of finishing the book, I had purchased her previous book, Victorian Secrets and it should be arriving before the week is out. The good and useful definitely outweighed the annoying with this one and I'm looking forward to reading more about this unique and beautiful life the Chrismans are building together.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

After Acts by Bryan Litfin -- Book Review

Book Description: "If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the biblical characters after Acts—from the well-known Matthew to the lesser-known Bartholomew—then this book is for you. Join Dr. Bryan Litfin as he guides you through Scripture and other ancient literature to sift fact from fiction, real-life from legend. "

Whew! I wanted to finish one last book for June and I've finished this one with 40 minutes to spare!

I was immediately intrigued by the timeline at the beginning of this book, and once I began to read it, I realized this will make a great study book for the teens during our Bible time.

I had mixed reactions to the different stories in this book. The stories of the four gospel writers didn't really contain a whole lot of new-to-me information. Others, like those of Mary, Thomas, and Paul, were really informative and interesting. The report card at the end of each chapter seemed odd and out of place. Why is the author grading the individuals based on the veracity of rumors about them? It was just a weird addition.

 Even with the interesting information offered on several of the figures, I didn't feel there were enough answers given on any of the characters to fit the promise on the back of the book, "Learn what really happened to your favorite characters."

Something else that drove me mad is the author's use of weird terms like "Johannine", "Marian", and "Petrine." Nobody talks like that in a book written for the average Joe. Because the rest of the book is written for the average Joe, these "scholarly" adjectives were way out of place.

 Overall the information was interesting---but don't get too excited. Aside from a couple assumed exceptions, the book doesn't really give any concrete answers at all.

I received this book from Moody Publishing in exchange for my honest review. 
All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Early Summer Reading Review

I've done quite a bit of reading so far this summer---some books were really life-changing, some just sort of meh. Here's a look at a few that didn't quite make "full blog post" status.

A Flaw in the Blood by Stephanie Barron

From Amazon: "The acclaimed author of the bestselling Jane Austen mysteries brings an enthralling new suspense novel centered around Queen Victoria and a secret so dangerous, it could topple thrones. Irish barrister Patrick Fitzgerald has been summoned by the Queen. For on this chilly night, her beloved husband, Prince Albert, lies dying. With her future clouded by grief, Fitzgerald can’t help but notice the Queen is curiously preoccupied with the past. Yet why, and how he can help, is unclear. His bewilderment deepens when the royal coach is violently overturned, nearly killing him and his ward, Dr. Georgiana Armistead. Soon the pair find themselves hunted. Little do they know they each carry within their past hidden clues to a devastating royal secret…one they must untangle if they are to survive." 

The implications in this work of fiction angered and disgusted me. I'm so disappointed in this author whom I've previously enjoyed reading and whom I assumed had a love and respect for British history. It seems her purpose here was to defame the memory of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and she did so ruthlessly.

Don't get me wrong, everything I've ever heard or read about Queen Victoria does not cast her in a good light. She seemed to be a self-centered, controlling woman and didn't appear to be very sentimental or compassionate toward her children. However, an older English friend of mine says differently and, being how it's her actual history in question, I try to give her the benefit of the doubt.

****Spoilers ahead****

The idea that Victoria being an illegitimate child offers the best reason for her son's hemophilia is a 19th century rumor that has long been dispelled by those who have thought it through logically and scientifically. A quote from Wikipedia states:

"Although an individual's haemophilia can usually be traced in the ancestry, in about 30% of cases there is no family history of the disorder, and the condition is speculated to be the result of spontaneous mutation in an ancestor.[2] Victoria's appears to have been a spontaneous or de novo mutation and she is usually considered the source of the disease in modern cases of haemophilia among her descendants. Queen Victoria's father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, was not a haemophiliac, and the probability of her mother having had a lover who suffered from haemophilia is minuscule given the low life expectancy of 19th-century haemophiliacs. Her mother, Victoria, Duchess of Kent, was not known to have a family history of the disease, although it is possible that she was a carrier but among her children only Victoria received the mutated copy. The rate of spontaneous mutation is known to increase with paternal age, and Victoria's father was 51 at her birth."

Furthermore, to suggest that Albert was suicidal is preposterous. There's nothing in history to legitimately suggest this, and the author has skewed history in an even more disgusting way by further "revealing" whom was actually (fictionally) to blame for his death. I just couldn't believe it when I read this one implicating line: "I had to put him down like a sick dog."

I'm all for a great historical mystery but to besmirch the names of respected people from history is low. How much greater it would have been to write a story line in which these characters shine brighter than history records. That would have been a story worth reading. 

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Book Description: "Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys’s return to the literary center stage. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction’s most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.”
I had a difficult time liking much of anything about this story. Madness, drunkenness, selfishness---there just wasn't a character I particularly liked. I thought the story would make me feel compassion for Jane Eyre's madwoman in the attic, but I've come away feeling strangely indifferent toward her.
The way this is written is beyond irritating with the narrator switching back and forth with no warning. I also felt there was a ton of unnecessary dialogue---especially between Rochester and Christophine near the end.

This was a 1001 Book though, so I was happy to be able to cross another off my list. After I got through it, I realized that I think I actually had started this about 10 years ago and abandoned it. Yay me for slogging through...

Clover: The Tragic Love Story of Clover and Henry Adams and Their Brilliant Life in America's Gilded Age by Otto Friedrich
When writing his autobiography in the late 1800s, Henry Adams, grandson of the former Presidents Adams, made no mention of his beloved wife of 13 years, Clover. Because the Adams' have gone down in history as having enjoyed an idyllic marriage before Clover was suddenly driven to suicide in 1885, author Otto Friedrich was determined to find out what went wrong.

Like many works of nonfiction that attempt to center on too narrow a topic, this book was filled to the brim with a lot of extra "stuff". One would think that a biography of a historical figure could surely fill up 350-odd pages, but there really isn't a lot of interesting information on record regarding Clover. The information presented in this book that pertains to her personally could have filled a magazine article. The information about her husband and others that directly affected the "tragic love story and their brilliant life" could have filled an essay. The subtitle for this book should really be something much more broad. Something like: "Clover: The tragic story of the Adams' and every person they could have had the slightest conversation with or even knowledge of during America's Gilded Age."

Since I've been on a 19th century reading rampage the last couple of years, I didn't mind so much, but there really isn't a whole lot in here about Clover, herself. The timeline switched around a lot---back and forth between different generations---so that was frustrating, especially since there were so many different Charles', Henrys, Abigails, and Adams', in general. The author also repeated information and even entire quotes, especially in the last 150 pages or so.

I didn't come away liking Henry very well. In their courting days, he seemed embarrassed that he was in love with Clover. After her death, he reminded me of someone I know well of the same age---that wandering, depressed, self-preserving person with whom every conversation is full of irritating, self-deprecating humor. The regretting personality of someone who has experienced great loss and is not entirely blameless.

Still, there were endearing moments. The Adams' seemed to have a true love and deep respect for one another. It was fun to read about their honeymoon discoveries in London: seeing "Whistler's Mother" at its debut and buying a "photographic apparatus".  I also like the stories of how they worked together toward common goals, like when Clover distracted the Spanish archivist so Henry could do his clandestine research.  I imagine her loss was more devastating than Henry could find words for---I suppose I shouldn't judge too harshly his lack of sentimentality.

Because her suicide was mentioned very early on, I kept looking for signs of mental illness in her character but finding none. At the beginning of her last year, even, I found it hard to believe this woman would take her own life so soon. I have a hard time believing it was only the despair of losing her father that drove her to suicide. Either there was more or the author made her out to be a much stronger and more level-headed woman than she really was.

What have you read this summer?