The Greatest Knight

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English ThronesThe Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An enthusiastic 5 stars, with the caveat that this book is intended for the general reader, and not a scholarly biography. Very “readable” but supported by extensive research and notes, maps, genealogical tables, and color illustrations. There is even a Cast of Characters in the back, but surprisingly no bibliography or suggestions for further reading. I loved the digressions about how to become a knight, the history of tournaments, sword-making, going on Crusade, courtly etiquette and manners, etc. There really are not a lot of details known about William’s life, so this is told through his associations with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and his son the “Young King,” Richard the Lion-Hearted, and the evil King John. William dies three years into the reign of Henry III and I was left wanting to know more about this king and how he picked up the pieces after the disastrous reign of his father. I know there is a fairly recent book on Henry III: The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III (2013) and a new one by Matthew Lewis coming out in March 2017. I may also have to seek out Asbridge’s earlier books on the Crusades. This was a great start to my review of recent books on the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses.

Book Description: Renowned historian Thomas Asbridge draws upon the thirteenth-century biography and an array of contemporary evidence to present a compelling account of William Marshal’s life and times. Asbridge charts the unparalleled rise to prominence of a man bound to a code of honor yet driven by unquenchable ambition. Marshal was the true Lancelot of his era — a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry. As a five-year-old boy, William was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, yet this landless younger son survived his brush with death and went on to train as a medieval knight. Against all odds, Marshal rose through the ranks — serving at the right hand of five English monarchs — to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician, and, ultimately, regent of the realm. This knight’s tale lays bare the brutish realities of medieval warfare and the machinations of royal court, and draws us into the heart of a formative period of our history. It is the story of one remarkable man, the birth of the knightly class to which he belonged, and the forging of the English nation.

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Unbroken

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An amazing and well-told story. Yes, it is a testament to courage, and the ability to survive, but it is also a testament to how cruel and brutal human beings can be to each other. War is a terrible thing, and that made this a hard book to listen to at times.

Book Description:
On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War. The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will. Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

Committed

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with MarriageCommitted: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy Liz Gilbert’s style and humor. I found her examination of the history and culture of marriage quite fascinating. I like her candor in discussing her inner thoughts and fears. And as a 58-year-old single woman, I really appreciated her thoughts on single women, and on the value of what “aunts” give to the world. Even in the U.S. in this day and age, to marry or not isn’t always a choice. She gives voice to the marriage equality struggle of LGBT folks, and the reassurance that marriage always has been and always will be changing and evolving.

Description: At the end of her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian living in Indonesia. The couple swore eternal love, but also swore (as skittish divorce survivors) never to marry. However, providence intervened in the form of a U.S. government ultimatum: get married, or Felipe could never enter America again. Told with Gilbert’s trademark humor and intelligence, this fascinating meditation on compatibility and fidelity chronicles Gilbert’s complex and sometimes frightening journey into second marriage, and will enthrall the millions of readers who made Eat, Pray, Love a number one bestseller.

Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, LoveEat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was bookclub pick that I really didn’t want to read. I had heard all the negative reviews about the book and movie. So I was pleasantly surprised. While I wouldn’t make the choices the author did – and let’s face it, most of us do not have either the money or the time to take a year out of our lives to go to such extremes in our search for self and happiness – I wouldn’t necessarily call her self-absorbed and narcissistic. We all make this journey at some point in our lives. She writes with honesty and humor about herself and the people she meets along the way. And in the end she is able to get out of her own way enough to raise money to help a struggling woman buy a house and even finds love when she has stopped looking for it. I would like to find out how this love story continues in her follow-up book “Committed.”

Description: This beautifully written, heartfelt memoir touched a nerve among both readers and reviewers. Elizabeth Gilbert tells how she made the difficult choice to leave behind all the trappings of modern American success (marriage, house in the country, career) and find, instead, what she truly wanted from life. Setting out for a year to study three different aspects of her nature amid three different cultures, Gilbert explored the art of pleasure in Italy and the art of devotion in India, and then a balance between the two on the Indonesian island of Bali. By turns rapturous and rueful, this wise and funny author (whom Booklist calls “Anne Lamott’s hip, yoga- practicing, footloose younger sister”) is poised to garner yet more adoring fans.

 

The Lady Queen

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and SicilyThe Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fascinating subject with enough drama for a soap opera, but it just didn’t come alive for me. Perhaps because of the lack of primary sources, the book gets bogged down by too many mundane details. Who cares that they left one city on a specific date and arrive somewhere else four days later on a specific date. Still, this Lady is begging to be better known. Her life and times were harrowing and tragic, with violent husbands, feuding families, a papal schism, the plague decimating all of Europe, and the “free companies” marauding and pillaging the countryside. And yet she maintained her sanity, held her own against all the plotting and conniving, built churches and hospitals, sponsored the writer Petrarch at her court, reduced crime, and was an ardent promoter of peace.

Description: In 1348, at the age of twenty-two, Joanna I, the queen of Naples, stood trial before the pope, accused of murdering her cousin and husband, Hungarian prince Andrew. Arguing her own case in Latin, she won her acquittal, and went on to become the only female monarch in her time to rule in her own name; she presided over one of Europe’s most prestigious and influential courts for more than thirty years—until she herself was murdered. For the first time, Nancy Goldstone tells the full story of one of the most courageous and accomplished women in history, painting a captivating portrait of medieval royalty in all its splendid complexity.

Hiding My Candy

Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography Of The Grand Empress Of SavannahHiding My Candy: The Autobiography Of The Grand Empress Of Savannah by The Lady Chablis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was very intrigued by this character after reading (and watching) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so when I discovered she wrote an autobiography I had to read it. She is witty, clever, and oh so full of herself… It gets a little wearing after awhile. I was hoping for something a little more serious and behind the scenes perhaps, but The Lady is all about image, and this book is all about perpetuating that, so nothing new here really. Still, it’s fascinating to try and understand someone who is on the opposite end of every imaginable spectrum from myself…

Book description:
After leaping off the pages with her unforgettable debut in John Berendt’s bestselling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the unabashed personality known as The Lady Chablis now brings her irresistible charisma to the remarkable odyssey of fabulousness that USA Today calls “sassy” and “provocative….” Born Benjamin Edward Knox in Quincy, Florida, “The Doll” always knew she was different. At a Tallahassee club, in her teens, she found the drag mother who would set her on the path to stardom. Before long, The Lady Chablis had a headline drag act replete with trademark saucy wit, down-home wisdom, and, of course, breasts. The rest is “Miss Thang” history….

 

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little WomenLouisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Loved it! Learned a lot. Laughed a lot.

Book description from Amazon:
A vivid, energetic account of the life of Louisa May Alcott, whose work has delighted millions of readers

Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott’s life: the effect of her father’s self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family’s chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale.

Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcott’s life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be. This revelatory portrait will present the popular author as she was and as she has never been seen before.