Thursday, November 29, 2007

Elizabeth I

I've long been fascinated by Elizabeth I, and this biography, by Alison Weir, is the best I've read. The others focused solely on Elizabeth's struggles with the religious strife in England during her reign or solely on her courtships and possible marriages and, of course, the hot topic of her legendary virginity.

Weir does a good job of balancing these two vital issues, while also spending a fair bit of time on what life was like in the royal court and on Elizabeth's very real problems. For being the most powerful woman in the world in an era when women were considered property of men, Elizabeth was a bit of a mess. She wavered on decisions, she made snap judgements and then regretted them, she flirted shamelessly with men and demanded their undying loyalty, and she couldn't make up her mind on what to do with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

But when you learn about Elizabeth's life, you understand a lot more why she was such a mess. She was her father's favorite child, at least until her mother, Anne Boleyn, fell from grace and was executed. After her mother's death, Elizabeth was sent pretty much into exile, only being allowed at court when her stepmothers permitted her. When her old sister Mary, a devout Catholic, took the throne, all Protestants, including Elizabeth found themselves at risk of imprisonment and/or execution. Elizabeth even spent time in the Tower of London - the prison part, not the royal apartments. Once she became queen, everyone around her wanted her married off, which would have meant that she wouldn't be the real ruler of England. Whomever she married would have become King and taken over control. Throughout her reign she lived in fear of a possible uprising by any number of factions that claimed stronger rights to the throne that she supposedly had as a woman. She feared naming an heir, believing that if she did she would probably be murdered or taken from the throne in favor of a male.

Even though she was indesicive and insecure, she held her ground through it all and brought the country through some terrible times. She was much loved by her subject, and her ragtag navy defeated the Spanish Armada. That victory alone secured her place in the hearts of her subjects.

Speaking of Elizabeth I, if you get a chance, watch the newish miniseries with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. It's not always entirely accurate, but it is spellbinding. Helen Mirren does an amazing job of showing Elizabeth's many sides.

Friday, November 23, 2007


As I've said before, I'd read the phone book if it was written by David McCullough. 1776 was a revelation for me. I'd only known the school-book version of the American Revolution, which is all about how a rag-tag band of rebels beat the odds and bested the mighty British Army. The books leave out the fact that the first year of the revolution, after the successful capture of Boston, thanks to Henry Knox transporting cannons from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain all the way to Boston in the middle of winter, was pretty much a disaster.

Washington didn't have battle experience; he hesitated; he changed his mind, all of which led to military fiascos. The Americans lost the Battle of Brooklyn very decisively. The only reason there was an army left after the battle was the astonishing retreat across the East River in the dead of night and shroud of fog. Otherwise, the American Revolution probably would have ended there. After Brooklyn, Washington retreated the troops all the way up Manhattan and into Westchester County and then into New Jersey, losing critical forts and troops - through injury, death, illness and desertion - the whole way.

The Battle of Trenton, in the dead of winter in 1776 was the crucial turning point for the whole escapade. Without that victory, we'd probably still be having afternoon tea.

Our family friend Jean recommended a book called Rabble in Arms, which is a fictionalized account of the Revolution from the Loyalists' point of view, and I'm now inspired to read it. One thing you do realize from McCullough's book is how many residents of the colonies were loyal to England. The success of the British on Long Island and at the Battle of Brooklyn was largely a result of the food, information, and shelter they received from residents who were loyal to the crown.

My only wish is that history books in school could be as entertaining and educational as this one. History class would have been a lot more fun, and I think I would have learned a lot more back in high school and college.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Spoiler alert - if you haven't read the book, don't read this entry.

I ordered the book from Amazon with guaranteed delivery on the publication date, but I ended up going to the bookstore that morning and picking up a copy so I could get started on it. I figured that with two copies of the book, B and I wouldn't have to share.

I started the book somewhat reluctantly - it was the last time I'd be opening a Harry Potter book for the first time. But then once I started reading, I didn't want to put the book down. Fortunately, the kids spent the night with their grandmother, and I spent the day in bed with a migraine, so reading conditions were perfect. I traded calls with my sister and my boss at Holt, each of us answering the phone saying, "I haven't finished; don't tell me what happened," instead of hello.

Bottom line, the book didn't disappoint. There are certain parts that just didn't fit. The whole section inside the Ministry getting the locket from Umbridge was a bit contrived, and the bit in the middle as Harry and Hermione wander the country not doing much of anything dragged on. But oh, having Dobby die was just too much for me. I cried. I also cried that one of the Weasleys and Lupin and Tonks died. That just wasn't fair.

But I was thrilled that Neville got to be a hero at the end. His character developed so much through the series, and I'm glad Rowling let him shine.

The final showdowns between Harry and Voldemort was somewhat anticlimactic though. Once I knew Harry had survived the scene in the forest, I knew he'd make it through the final battle without a problem. It was just a question of how it would happen.

One final bit that didn't sit well with me was having Harry and Ginny marry. I always saw Ginny and Neville marrying each other. And I pictured Harry and Luna together. But the final line of the book was just perfect. As was having Harry name his son for Dumbledore and Snape. As nasty as Snape was, I always knew he wasn't a bad guy, even after he killed Dumbledore. I was so glad to be right about that one detail.

And Rowling's revelation about Dumbledore's being gay - didn't bother me in the least. I kind of shrugged and said, "Hmmm. Interesting," and let it go at that.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Devil's Teeth

I picked this book up on a whim at BookPeople because the cover and the back blurb looked interesting, and I am so glad I did. I've always been fascinated by sharks, perhaps because I grew up going to the beach at least once a week. I briefly contemplated studying marine biology - at least I thought about it until I saw the core chemistry and biology classes I had to get through before I could start on the marine biology stuff.

The book is about a group of scientists that have been studying great white sharks that congregate off the Farallones Islands, which are 27 miles off the coast of San Francisco. It's the largest group of great whites in the world that have been seen congregating in the same place year after year.

Susan Casey, the author, obtained permission to go to the Farallones to be with the shark researchers. The islands are federally protected areas, and people can't even set foot on them without jumping through all kinds of hoops. The researchers Casey met are as interesting as the sharks they're studying.

I finished wanting to visit the Farallones, or at the very least just cruise by them, and to read more about sharks. But I haven't done either yet.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Great Bridge

Basically, I'd read the telephone book if it was written by David McCullough. I love his style of writing, and I've read all of his books except for the one about Teddy Roosevelt. After I read this book for the first time about five years ago, I made it a life's goal of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Two years ago, I went to NYC with two friends, and as we were planning the trip I told them the only thing I HAD to do was walk across the bridge. One laughed at me, until everyone she told about the trip said to her, "You just have to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It's the coolest thing!" So she gave up and agreed to join in the adventure.

I think the walk across the bridge meant more to me just because I knew the story of it. Roebling the father died before the bridge got underway. Roebling the son became the chief engineer after his father's death, but spent most of his time observing the progress from the window of his house in Brooklyn Heights due to debilitating pain from the bends, which he got after visiting one the caissons used to dig the foundations for the towers. Roebling's wife then oversaw much of the day-to-day opersations on behalf of her husband.

It's a miracle the bridge got built at all. I realize I'm not an engineer or an architect, but the Brooklyn Bridge is a piece of engineering genious and a work of art, all at the same time.

During our trip, Heidi, Lisa and I all walked across the bridge, marvelling at the architecture and the view. After brunch in Brooklyn Heights, Heidi and Lisa took off to do their own thing, and I walked back across the bridge, stopping at the midpoint to just sit and watch the world go by.

I re-read the book this past year, after I bought a huge photograph of the bridge for our bedroom. Having walked the bridge and seen it in person, the enormity of the feats of engineering really hit home. The bridge is just so huge. It's amazing it was built given the technology and machinery available at the time. I'm looking forward to my next trip to NYC so I can stroll across again.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Red Tent

I'm so close to finishing this book, but I can't bear to pick it back up and read the last 20 pages. It's been a slog so far. I'm amazed I've read as much as I have. I picked it up on a whim at the bookstore a week ago when I dashed in to grab a gift card for a birthday party we were late getting to. The book was right at the front and had a big sign saying it was a special printing in honor of the book's 10th anniversary. I figured that any book that had a special 10th anniversary printing must be worth reading. Plus it was a NYT best seller. I should have remembered that Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh have both had NYT best sellers, so that label doesn't mean much.

I'm sure there are lots of women who have and who will love this book. It's set in old testament days and is about Dinah, sister of Joseph - Joseph with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I had hoped there would be some real historical lessons woven through the story, but no. It's supposed to give voices to the women of the old testament, who are mentioned in passing and don't have a real role in the Bible. But I'm not sure the author has succeeded here.

Most of the action takes place in the "red tent" of the title, the special tent where women are banished for three days during that time of the month because they are unclean. Diamate, the author, presents this tent as a magical place, where women bond with each other and celebrate the teachings of the women who went before them, blah, blah, blah. I found it stifling and overly mother-earthy.

So maybe I'll finish it some day and find out what happens to Dinah in Egypt, where she flees after her brothers slaughter her husband and all the men in his village. Or maybe I won't.

Friday, November 2, 2007

"Ham of God"

I had loaned my friend my copy of Plan B by Anne Lamott and had forgotten about it completely until she read my post on Spalding Gray, which has a rant about people not returning boks. Anyway, my friend returned the book to me yesterday, and I threw it in my diaper bag. I pulled the book out this morning while waiting for my doctor's appointment, and I read "Ham of God." I had forgotten how much I love this story; it's probably my favorite of all Lamott's pieces. She read it when she performed in Austin, and I cried while listening to her.

I'm not a particularly religious person, but I do believe in moments of grace, pure grace. This story is one of the best examples of grace I've ever heard: an unexpected, unwanted ham turns into salvation for a woman who desperately needs it.

And the story contains what is going to be my new mantra when I'm having one of my little panic attacks - left foot, right foot, breathe.

I'm going to re-read the whole book because I need the grace that Lamott offers in her writing.