Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls WilderPrairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 rounded down to 3 stars. There is certainly a lot of detail here for Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, but I found the author to be a very harsh critic of her daughter Rose, portraying her as mentally ill and perhaps sociopathic. Perhaps she was. I found myself disliking her intensely. Whether the author’s grasp of psychology, history, and politics is accurate or not, it is certainly biased. So take this with a large grain of salt. I felt as if Fraser was trying to set fire to everything you think you know about Wilder and the Little House books. I’m no conservative or libertarian but I got tired of her flogging her political views. I think it created a distorted view of the lives of Laura and her family. Having said that, I still found much that was interesting. Just balance this one out with other biographies.

Audio book narrated by Christina Moore.

Book Description: The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie book series. Millions of fans of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls – the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true story of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser – the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series – masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books and uncovering the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life. Set against nearly a century of epochal change, from the Homestead Act and the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. Offering fresh insight and new discoveries about Wilder’s life and times, Prairie Fires is the definitive book about Wilder and her world.

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The Wright Brothers

The Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. McCullough’s telling of the story of the Wright brothers draws on personal diaries, notebooks, and more than 1,000 letters from private family correspondence. I liked learning of their sister Katharine, whose devotion to the family played an important and unsung role. She gave her whole life to them, only daring to get married at age 52. Even then, Orville flew into a rage and refused to speak to her again. But frankly, I expected more from someone with the renown of this author. I would have liked to learn more about the family. Why did neither brother ever marry? Orville rages were dismissed as just some kind of eccentric “spells.” What did they do with their lives after Kitty Hawk and Paris? How did the aeronautics industry develop out of their inventions? This could have been a much better developed story. Instead, it just whets the appetite.

Book description: On December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright’s Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. The Age of Flight had begun. How did they do it? And why? David McCullough tells the extraordinary and truly American story of the two brothers who changed the world.

Audiobook read by the author.

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.

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.