Besides my slow but productive progress through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I’ve made some time for a few other books lately. Among which:
The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve been thinking a lot about World War I during this centennial year, and I am fascinated by anything to do with the Long 19th Century, so when I was browsing for commute audiobooks on Overdrive and saw this, I knew I had to read it. It’s an engagingly written history of the Western world before WWI that tries to paint that world as it was and seemed at the time to those who lived in it, and not as it looked (or looks) through the rosy glasses of war-wearied remembrance.
The book consists of several loosely interconnected essays on different themes, and with shifting geographical foci. I had no idea, for example, how widespread and organized (after its fashion) the international movement toward anarchism was. I can’t decide whether I liked the chapter on British politics or the chapter on German culture more. They were both good, although the German chapter might win just for the brilliantly descriptive and insightful observation that “Strauss was a string plucked by the Zeitgeist.” And yes, I spent time listening to Strauss and other music of the time in between chapters.
The chapter on American imperialism as defined by the Spanish-American war and the conquest of the Philippines was also illuminating for me. Tony and I spent a summer in the Philippines and used to often wonder why after 300 years of Spanish rule and only a few decades of American rule the Filipinos still looked on America with suspicion while seeming to have much softer feelings toward their erstwhile Spanish rulers. I no longer wonder. There’s also a good chapter on the Dreyfuss affair and its long-reaching effects on French politics and culture.
I think the thing that surprised me the most was how familiar so many of the issues and controversies sounded. Although there was a certain optimism that might be difficult to find again any time soon. I was almost amused to find that Alfred Nobel had originally only intended for the prize bearing his name to be given out for the next thirty years, since he expected that world peace would have been worked out by then.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wanted to review this one around the holidays, because it deals with the birth of Jesus, and would be such a perfect gift for a midwife, mother-to-be, or anyone else who cares about birth and views it as an event with something of holiness about it.
Told from the point of view of the midwife who attended Mary on the night of Jesus’ birth, it recounts her story, her calling as a midwife, and the ways her life prepared her for that all-important first Christmas night. In some ways, it reminded me of the Red Tent, although Delivered is very devotional in tone and much less “earthy,” and would be appropriate for audiences that might not enjoy the Red Tent because of the sex and unorthodox views of Old Testament prophets.
I loved the descriptions of natural midwifery techniques using herbs and traditional birthing accessories like birthing stools or scarves. The scenes that involved births were very well articulated, and took me back in time to my own lovely homebirths.
Full disclosure: I copy edited this book. The author, Jessica Van Leuven, was a joy to work with, and works in labor and delivery as an RN. She knows her stuff when it comes to birth, and it shows.
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’m kind of a sucker for anything having to do with 19th century Britain, and I’ve read all of Clare’s Mortal Instruments books, so I was going to get around to reading this prequel series eventually. My favorite thing about it was meeting everyone’s ancestors. Clare has a flair for colorful characters, and it was interesting to see what all those Shadowhunter families were up to a hundred years ago.
That said, the characters are a little weird, and the plot is not that–convincing? That’s probably a meaningless criticism for YA fantasy, so maybe “not compelling” is what I should say instead. Plus, one of the characters was a shape-shifter, and I was constantly imagining ways she could solve the various problems by just changing shape, which she did very rarely. What’s the use of having such a great talent if you’re not constantly using it? So there’s that.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Boring love triangle alert. Alas, the female protagonist cannot choose between the nice guy and the bad boy. What else is new in YA fiction? Really, my favorite person in this series is Magnus Bane, and he appears disappointing infrequently.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The crisis at the beginning of this book was kind of disturbing and gross to me. Spoiler: man gets bizarre venereal disease that turns him into giant ravenous worm. Like, literally–a huge, voracious invertebrate creature. I mean, it was kind of an interesting twist on everyone promiscuous in the 19th century getting syphilis, but still.
Come to think of it, these books also feature a fantasy take on consumption, that old Victorian standby of doomed romances, and a magical kind of opium, as well as some 19th century technology gone bad. The whole thing is very steampunk, and not badly done. Also, Oscar Wilde makes a cameo appearance as a fastidiously dressed werewolf. So the premise is great fun, but the characters and plot, not so much.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m not a big mystery reader. Come to think of it, I believe I dislike mysteries because they generally make me feel stupid. I am never a step ahead. I’m always surprised at the end, and I always feel dumb for not figuring it out. Also, I find the idea of murder disturbing, and hate books that rehash gory details over and over from different angles. However, after recently seeing not one but two Doctor Who episodes based on Agatha Christie (The Unicorn and the Wasp and Mummy on the Orient Express), I decided it was high time to give her a chance.
And giving myself permission to just let the story progress without feeling pressure to solve the mystery before it unfolded itself in front of me was quite helpful. It allowed me to enjoy Christie’s superb character development and subtle exploration of moral issues. The way she gets inside her characters’ heads and explores their darker tendencies, their fears, their justifications, and their sometimes strange points of view is frankly brilliant. She has a peculiar knack for apt descriptions, both of physical details and personal character.
The premise of this particular book is interesting, as it explores different degrees of guilt and the nature of justice, as well as human nature when put in stressful and suspenseful situations. I enjoyed it enough that I think I’ll try reading some more Agatha Christie.