Reprint: Read all about it…

Question: Why are people who are manifestly dressed to get attention generally so upset when they get it? Specifically, people I pass on the street, wearing leopard-patterned hair or wildly mismatched clothes or tees with snarky sayings or whatever other non-conformist behaviour is the order of the day.

I’m not talking creepy stalkerish behaviour, here. (I should point out that my own dress and grooming makes that abundantly clear.) Just a friendly, open, interested second glance: thanx for giving me something new and different to look at, I appreciate the effort. And for this – aside from the odd and welcome impudent grin – I get confused looks at best and ferocious scowls at worst.

It’s enough to make a person throw up her hands and bemoan the decline of Western Civilization…except that doesn’t quite feel right, either.

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Anyway. So posting those capsule book reviews the other day turned out to be a lot more fun than I’d anticipated; it’s been awhile since I wallowed in any new and unique parts of my psyche around here, and it was a curiously refreshing experience. Besides, I’d like to think I have fairly good taste in the general way as well.

As it happens, I’ve got lots of grist for this particular mill: my very first experiment in online communication – aka inflicting my random opinions on a helpless public – happened on the Chapters/Indigo website. At the time I was working on the special orders/info desks at Toronto’s landmark World’s Biggest Bookstore, part of the same chain. I would literally browse through the latest releases in the morning, then run upstairs to the Net cafe to write a review at lunch (and sometimes just, ah, slightly into the afternoon shift as well – sorry, Randy and Mike, wherever you are!) In that respect at least, it was a wonderful life.

So…below is the first in a reposted series of short reader reviews I wrote circa 1999-2001…at least, the decently clever ones. I’ve done some close editing/proofing and removed the star ratings, and then organised them by genre as best I could. This week, I thought we’d kick off with a topic that hasn’t been covered around here in awhile: History/Biography.

Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann:

It’s hard to believe that there was anything more to be written about Helen Keller, the deaf-blind activist and author, but Herrmann manages it well in this new biography. Mainly by concentrating on the ‘real’ Helen and her world, stripping back all the myths and reworking their creation as the backdrop for a portrait of a beautiful, intelligent, highly-strung woman who was devoted to her equally willful teacher, Annie Sullivan, for better or for worse.
Herrmann’s overall thesis is that Keller was held back by the need for her to become a ‘saintly’ role model, both on a personal and societal level, and it’s a strong one. Unfortunately, in the process Herrmann seems to have conceived a personal dislike for many of those around Keller, and uses her perception of their motives to colour the book’s viewpoint in the opposite direction – a narrow focus that frequently renders famously complex people as two-dimensional villains. Still, for what it’s worth a nice complement to Joseph Lash’s more externals-oriented Helen and Teacher.

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Elizabeth the Queen by Alison Weir:

An excellent general overview of the life and times of Elizabeth I. Weir, author of a long series of popular histories on the Tudor theme, has a knack for knowing how much detail to add without cluttering — although her technique of alternating narrative with long scene-setting chapters, while showing off impeccable scholarship, tends to take some of the readability out of Elizabeth’s grandly – and very consciously – theatrical story. (Those who have seen the Cate Blanchett movies may be in for a disappointment, though, inasmuch as the reality was considerably less cloak-and-dagger erotic than portrayed there.)

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The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser:

This stern attempt to get at the truth behind Henry VIII’s marital soap opera may be a bit too pared down for some — as witness the harsh criticism in various Net reader reviews. As far as I can tell, there are quite a few people out there who prefer to think of the Tudor monarchy as a sort of medieval Mission: Impossible, complete with a poisoned dress in every wardrobe. In some ways, Elizabeth, the movie, has a lot to answer for. (Future Shoe: And we won’t even get into The Tudors…)
But in resolutely sticking to unvarnished reality, Fraser – while admittedly removing much of the glamour – also uncovers a wonderfully compelling human story, in all its sad, sordid and occasionally utterly ridiculous glory. That they were not necessarily the people we thought or hoped they were on no account diminishes what they were.

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Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose:

Terrific. As the subtitle indicates, this is both a detailed biography of Meriwether Lewis and an attempt to put the Lewis and Clark expedition into historical perspective — and it succeeds brilliantly on both counts. Master military historian Ambrose provides a characteristically clearsighted analysis of the young captain’s command decisions, successes and failures. We also get a rather distressing – or amusing, depending on your own perspective – POV on the smugly self-referential attitudes inherent in creating the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Either you bought into the Founding Fathers’ version of equality or, well, else.
Caveat emptor, though: because of the focus on Lewis, this is not quite the definitive book on the expedition itself (as I was hoping when I bought it). The few clear glimpses we do get of Clark confirm my suspicion that he was probably the more interesting, or at least less predictable, character of the two. And the controversy surrounding Lewis’ death is dismissed in two disappointingly sweeping paragraphs. Taken as a whole, though, it remains a must-read for anyone interested in this most compelling of adventure stories.

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Nicholas & Alexandra by Robert Massie:

History as fairy tale… without, of course, the ‘happily ever after’. The true tragedy of Czar Nicholas II and his beautiful Empress, as Massie demonstrates in this masterful quasi-novelisation of their story, is that they lacked the vision and understanding to be more than a storybook prince and princess at a time when history was spectacularly unforgiving of such. The sheer scope and detail of this book is incredible — yet the subjects are all too human. Still the definitive account (Future Shoe: although the author’s extreme characterization of Rasputin, among other details, has been attacked in some later quarters) and highly recommended.

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Bloody Mary by Carolly Erickson:

If any of England’s rulers was crying out to star in a full-scale biography, it’s Mary Tudor. The ‘Bloody Mary’ of legend was in fact — as Erickson amply demonstrates — a complex, courageous, principled woman whose views of good and evil were irretrievably scarred by intense personal tragedy. This is a tremendous work of scholarship, fully researched and highly readable, clearly the definitive volume.
The one flaw is Erickson’s increasing reluctance to hold her subject responsible for her actions, especially as the bodies start to pile up; casting a supreme ruler, however virtuous, as a helpless victim of circumstance rings more than a little false. But all in all this is a fine look at an unexpectedly vivid slice of Tudor history.

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Marie Antoinette: A Biography by Evelyne Lever:

Finally, the definitive biography of the legendary last Queen of France…for French readers, anyway. Apparently, the English translation cuts the book down by about 1/3, and it reads like it. Controversies are raised that get no exploration; fascinating assertions are made, and suddenly it’s on to the next paragraph. Enough remains so that the net effect is indeed that of a fast-paced, gripping novel – but readers interested in a nuanced examination of this remarkable woman might be well advised to pick up a few Berlitz tapes.

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