Review 1618: The Prince

I put The Prince on my Classics Club list mostly out of curiosity. Now that my curiosity has been satisfied, I can well understand some of the controversy surrounding it.

Machiavelli wrote the book for the newly arisen Medici family, and the last chapter is basically a plea for Lorenzo di Medici to rise up and conquer Italy. The Prince is a treatise on power: how to get it, how to keep it, what to do with it. It is utilitarian rather than moral. For example, it advises princes that they need not honor their promises once they are in a position of power if the promises are not in their best interests.

Although Cesare Borgia was considered ruthless and cruel even in his own time, Machiavelli several times holds him up as a model and clearly venerates him. But then, his ideas are not ours, for he tells a story of a principality being won. The principality needed good government, so the prince put in charge a man known for his ruthlessness and rapacity. Once the area was settled, the prince “wiped out” his lieutenant. Good work!

The book is regarded as a realistic analysis of the pursuit of power. This is why it is still widely studied. It is written in a straightforward style, assertion followed by example.

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Review 1609: A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Brontë to Lessing

When I began reading A Literature of Their Own, I expected it to be more like Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers, which is a recounting of the achievements and short biographies of American women writers, many of whom have been ignored by academics, critics, and editors. A Literature of Their Own, however, is Showalter’s dissertation, one of the first feminist literary studies, published originally in 1977 and revised in the 90’s.

As such, it is a bit scholarly and outdated and at times felt mired in its feminist analysis. Showalter divides 19th and 20th century works by women into three categories: female, feminine, and feminist. When she first made this distinction, it seemed artificial and overly finicky, but as she described the fiction, it clearly belonged in three categories, becoming more likely to be feminist in later times.

This book was a bit of a struggle at times. I have two lit degrees, but I don’t necessarily enjoy reading more academic works. Some sections were very interesting while others devolved into a sort of classic early feminist analysis. Still, for those interested in feminism and literature, this is probably a must read. And I’m not implying I am not, just that sometimes the analysis from such a limited viewpoint seems stretched and overdone.

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Review 1573: One Woman’s Year

I was delighted to receive One Woman’s Year from Persephone Press as a review copy. I hadn’t heard of Stella Martin Currey before, but I shall be looking out for her books.

One Woman’s Year is a journal but with a very specific structure. Each chapter is for one month and begins with a quote from a 1677 book called British Merlin, which seems to be a sort of almanac. Then there is an article on some subject, often related to the month. Following this are the following sections: ‘Most Liked Job,” “Most Disliked Job,” “Recipe,” “Excursion,” and “Anthology.” The short pieces often contain amusing anecdotes. “Excursion” is always a suggestion of an interesting outing to make with children, and “Anthology” is quotes from books and poetry. All this is nicely illustrated with woodcuts at the beginning of each chapter and elsewhere.

Although Currey is a lot more domesticated than I am, I found this book light and easy to read. I skipped over most of the recipes but may try others. All in all, I found this book charming, quick to read and entertaining. She sounds like a good mom.

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Review 1534: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson started out writing travel books that were notable for his humor and the many factiods and interesting stories he told about the places he visited. I imagine him with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything.

More recently, he has tackled other subjects, and his newest book is about the human body. In this book, he approaches the body system by system to explain what it does and how miraculous it is. As usual, he relates stories about the various people who made discoveries about the body and includes lots of factoids.

This book is entertaining enough, but it wasn’t the book for me. I have a personal black hole when it comes to subjects such as health and medicine (also religion). Although I was mildly interested in it and found lots of passages to read to my husband (who is interested in that kind of thing, although not religion), I decided not to finish it. I think it is a good book, though, for those who are more interested in the topic or like lots of interesting facts.

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Review 1507: Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill is Ronan Farrow’s book detailing the NBC News investigation into claims of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape by Harvey Weinstein against numerous female actors and employees. This investigation resulted in Farrow’s New Yorker article that precipitated the Me Too movement. The book also details the obstruction of Farrow’s efforts to pursue the investigation by his own management at NBC, which turned out to have its own culture of sexual abuse and harassment and a system of cover-ups for this behavior.

Less well known is his story of surveillance by the Weinstein organization and of threats against witnesses and potential witnesses. Interestingly enough, he also mentions instances of similar claims against Donald Trump before his election, which, along with those against Weinstein were “caught and killed” by the National Enquirer and its affiliates.

Farrow is very open about his own not very helpful responses to his sister Dylan’s claims against their father, Woody Allen, and about his feelings of being spied upon as well as a certain amount of naiveté when NBC first began obstructing his investigations. This is an interesting account of a landmark moment in recent history.

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Review 1491: Grant

Ron Chernow has become one of my three favorite biographers, along with Doris Kearns Goodwin for political figures and Claire Tomalin for literary ones. Although both Grant and Alexander Hamilton are of a length that could seem forbidding to some readers, they are unfailingly readable and interesting.

Chernow’s main thrust is that Grant has long been misrepresented and his legacy misunderstood. I can testify to this by my personal experience in school, where he was characterized in exactly the terms spelled out in this book. We were told that he was a drunk whose presidency was riddled with corruption. His contribution to the Civil War was virtually ignored.

Poor Grant! Chernow sets us all straight. Yes, Grant had a problem with drink. He, in fact, got drunk after a small amount of liquor. This was a problem he fought all his adult life and conquered during his presidency. After he was made to resign from the army early in his career for being drunk on duty (a claim Grant, who was very truthful, said was not true), enemies found it convenient to claim he was drunk on many occasions when he had not touched a drop.

Chernow’s coverage of the Civil War makes very clear how much the nation has to thank Grant for its end, after a series of generals got nowhere against Lee. In fact, in his time, Grant was considered one of the greatest generals of all time, whereas his legacy has been disparaged, with prominent Southern historians claiming his success was only because the North had more resources available than the South.

The implication I always took away from Grant’s presidency was that he must have been corrupt if his administration was. First, administrations had been rife with corruption since Jackson’s. Second, although Grant believed in the patronage system, the idea of awarding positions because of merit was actually a new one, and Grant did award many positions for that reason. Last, like many very honest men, Grant tended to trust too easily, with unfortunate results.

Although many of the positive results of Grant’s administration were nullified by subsequent changes when Reconstruction was eliminated, Chernow documents many benefits for black Americans and in Grant’s attempts to help Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others. Grant’s administration gave the vote to black men and wiped out the first incarnation of the Ku Kluxers.

Chernow has written a rivetting book that has convinced me that Grant is one of our most underrated and misrepresented presidents. He was a great man.

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Review 1466: Vanishing Cornwall

Over the years, I have read most of the novels written by Daphne du Maurier, but when I made up my current Classics Club list, I came across this work of nonfiction. It’s the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

Vanishing Cornwall is a little hard to describe. Du Maurier made her principal residence in Cornwall for many years, and I guess I would call this book an appreciation.

She starts out by traveling around the area with her son to take photographs from each of the Hundreds of Cornwall. So, the book is in small part a travel book. But as it progresses from region to region, aside from lyrical descriptions and photos of the scenery, du Maurier includes stories from history and folk lore. Toward the end of the book, she switches to chapters on specific topics, like fishing or free-trading, associated with Cornwall.

She ends with a conservation message, at the time a concern to preserve the area’s beauty while finding some way to help support the locals. I have never been to Cornwall, but I would imagine that some of what she has to say is out of date now, as it was even between 1967, when the book was first published, and 1980, the date of my edition, which switched out the original black and white photos for colored ones and added an epilogue. She does tend to romanticize some subjects, and her assertions such as the one that King Arthur did actually exist are a little more in doubt now.

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Review 1464: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Dreyer’s English was recommended to me by a friend, and it proved to be so popular at the library that I had to wait two months for my hold to come through. As I worked as a writer for more than 30 years, not too much of what Dreyer has to say is a surprise to me, but his facetious style is refreshing.

This book is a familiarly organized writing reference, but it’s easy to simply read it, because it’s fun. Dreyer got on my good side almost immediately by citing Words into Type, a book that was my editing bible for years. I noticed in later years that young writers were rather sneery about it (“That’s out of date, isn’t it?”), or I more frequently met with a blank stare when I recommended it. Now I feel vindicated.

Most interesting to me was the expansion of the “easily confused” list from that included in Words into Type. I was surprised at the increase in the number of simple items being confused.

From its Intro to its Outro, Dreyer’s English contains useful information for even the most casual writer. I think I’m going to buy a copy.

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Review 1392: A Very Private Eye

I am not much for reading letters and diaries, because I like story telling, even in nonfiction, rather than glimpses of a life. So, A Very Private Eye, a collection of Barbara Pym’s diary entries and letters, was probably not the best choice for me. Still, a good friend gave me the book, so I decided to read it.

The book was both worse and better than I expected. It begins with Pym’s diary entries as she starts Oxford. In no time, she has embroiled herself with Henry Harvey, who treats her shamefully. Unfortunately, instead of telling him to bugger off like he deserves, she records her heart-rendings, which continue for years.

Next comes a series of letters to Harvey and his wife, and to other friends. I found the letters to the Harveys excruciating. She gives herself the identity of the spinster, Miss Pym, and writes about herself in the third person in a false, jokey tone with constant reminders of her single status. Very obvious. I would think the wife would have been wary.

I was just about to give up on her at around 100 pages in, when the book gets into the war and becomes much more interesting. Similarly, it gets more interesting as she ages, although she refers to a lot of people whose role in her life is not explained. (That would have been helpful, although each section begins with an explanatory introduction by the editors.)

She went through about ten years when no one would publish her books because they were no longer thought to be marketable. Then two prominent literary figures independently listed her as one of Britain’s most underrated authors. Her next books were published, and she was eventually shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I felt it was sad that this happened for her just a few years before she died.

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Review 1383: Educated

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about being raised by a bipolar, survivalist fundamentalist Mormon father and his subservient wife in the depths of rural Idaho. Westover and her younger siblings were home-schooled after her father’s paranoia led him to withdraw his children from school. This home schooling was something I have feared for many home-schooled children when their education is not supervised. Their mother began by trying to have school each day, but their father insisted on dragging the kids out to his junkyard to work. Finally, their mother settled for teaching them to read, and the only educated children in the family became so by their own efforts.

Westover’s father did not observe any work safety practices in the junkyard. Since he didn’t believe in medical care except for his wife’s herbal remedies, some accidents resulted in severe injuries for his children and himself.

Aside from Westover’s difficulties in getting a formal education, this book is more about the toll it took for her to go against her family’s teachings enough to do it—a woman’s place being in the home. Even more so, it is about her struggle with her own view of herself, especially after her sister asks her to support her when she tells the family that her brother Shawn is abusive. Westover must figure out who she is in the absence of her family. She must re-examine her own past to learn the lessons about her family—that her mother put her subservience to her father before the safety of their children; that their father would rather disown one child than face the reality of another’s abusive nature, and that some of her siblings will turn against her, too; even that most of her father’s ideas are actually not true.

This is an amazing and enthralling book. Westover’s journey from a college student who never heard of the Holocaust to a doctorate in history and a commensurate growth in self-awareness is inspiring.

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