Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an autobiography by a young man from a very dysfunctional working-class family in Ohio. He survived a family culture of violence, broken relationships, and addiction due to the steady influence of his “hillbilly” grandparents who instilled the importance of education, and to a stint in the Marines which taught him self-respect and self-discipline. It is a book which is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I gave it 4-stars for being entertaining and inspiring, reflective and insightful, but I would want to read more before assigning his experience to a whole cultural region. He is a generation removed from Appalachia, and surely not everyone there comes from dysfunctional families. So if you are looking to understand the results of the 2016 election, his political and economic analysis is superficial at best. The issues that he faced and overcame are not unique to Appalachia.

Book description: Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for more than forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.

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The Frozen Thames

The Frozen ThamesThe Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful and intriguing little book. I gave it four stars instead of 5 because it is more of a snack than a full-course meal. Each story is 3-4 pages long, fiction, but mostly based on documented events. I would have loved more historical and scientific background as a companion to each vignette. But as it is, it makes a nice meditative read on a cold night. I especially loved the story about the boy who thawed frozen birds, still alive, that had fallen from the sky covered in ice, and the story of the family that had taken two robin redbreasts into their home to shelter for the winter.

Source: Library book.

Description: In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river. Contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid, spanning more than seven centuries—from 1142 to 1895—and illustrated with stunning full-color period art. Whether we’re viewing the magnificent spectacle of King Henry VIII riding across the ice highway (while plotting to rid himself of his second wife) or participating in a joyous Frost Fair on the ice, joining lovers meeting on the frozen river during the plague years or coming upon the sight of a massive ship frozen into the Thames…these unforgettable stories are a triumph of the imagination as well as a moving meditation on love, loss, and the transformative powers of nature.

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.

Foundation

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors (The History of England, #1)Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intended for a popular audience, not an academic one. There are no maps, no genealogical tables, and no footnotes. The style is breezy and narrative, ranging back and forth from kings and politics to the common people. Lots of digressions on various topics like architecture, games and sports, the development of bronze, the practice of medicine, etc. This covers prehistory up to the Tudors, so there is a clear sense of the development of various institutions over time. In his “conclusion” the author emphasizes his decision that this focuses on England only, leaving Wales, Scotland and Ireland for other historians. Though we do get a brief page on Owen Glendower. This isn’t the best historical overview I’ve read, but I enjoyed it, and 4 stars means I’ll likely read more in the series. If I have a complaint, it is that it tries to cover too much. I would have preferred a separate volume on the Plantagenets, which would have allowed a little more detail.

Book description: In Foundation, acclaimed historian Peter Ackroyd tells the epic story of England itself. He takes us from the primeval forests of England’s prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the cathedrals. He describes the successive waves of invaders who made England English, despite being themselves Roman, Viking, Saxon, or Norman French. With his extraordinary skill for evoking time and place and his acute eye for the telling detail, Ackroyd recounts the story of warring kings, of civil strife, and foreign wars. But he also gives us a vivid sense of how England’s early people lived: the homes they built, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, even the jokes they told. All are brought to life in this history of England through the narrative mastery of one of Britain’s finest writers.

The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made EnglandThe Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very engaging! Covers 200 years of English history from Henry II through Richard II. Very much a book about the kings, their wars, and accomplishments told by a master story teller. Jones manages to deconstruct the myths and legends, while incorporating the latest research and insights into their lives and personalities. We get the good, the bad, and the ugly about these kings and yet Jones still manages to make them human beings. As bad as some of these kings were, they still managed to create a strong and powerful realm, an England that has endured to the present day.

Book description: The first Plantagenet kings inherited a blood-soaked realm from the Normans and transformed it into an empire that stretched at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. In this epic narrative history of courage, treachery, ambition, and deception, Dan Jones resurrects the unruly royal dynasty that preceded the Tudors. They produced England’s best and worst kings: Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, twice a queen and the most famous woman in Christendom; their son Richard the Lionheart, who fought Saladin in the Third Crusade; and his conniving brother King John, who was forced to grant his people new rights under the Magna Carta, the basis for our own bill of rights. Combining the latest academic research with a gift for storytelling, Jones vividly recreates the great battles of Bannockburn, Crécy, and Sluys and reveals how the maligned kings Edward II and Richard II met their downfalls. This is the era of chivalry and the Black Death, the Knights Templar, the founding of parliament, and the Hundred Years’ War, when England’s national identity was forged by the sword.

1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt

1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt by Juliet Barker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To be honest, I didn’t read the whole book. I made it to page 212 and then jumped to the last chapter. I’m sure this is an excellent and well-researched historical study, but it just was dense and dry. I’m looking more for a good story, not a recital of fact after fact. I couldn’t keep track of all the names without some kind of thread to follow. I liked the political and economic background, but then I just got bogged down in all the minutiae. To be fair, I’m reviewing for a public library audience, not an academic one. The color plates are nice, lots of notes, and yay! a bibliography, but what it really could have used were maps.

Book description: Barker tells how and why a diverse and unlikely group of ordinary men and women from every corner of England―from servants and laborers living off wages, through the village elite who served as bailiffs, constables, and stewards, to the ranks of the gentry―united in armed rebellion against church and state to demand a radical political agenda. Had it been implemented, this agenda would have transformed English society and anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years. Skeptical of contemporary chroniclers’ accounts of events, Barker draws on the judicial sources of the indictments and court proceedings that followed the rebellion. This emphasis offers a fresh perspective on the so-called Peasants’ Revolt and gives depth and texture to the historical narrative. Among the book’s arguments are that the rebels believed they were the loyal subjects of the king acting in his interests, and that the boy-king Richard II sympathized with their grievances.

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.