Review: The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone



The riveting true story of mother-and-daughter queens Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois, whose wildly divergent personalities and turbulent relationship changed the shape of their tempestuous and dangerous century.

Set in magnificent Renaissance France, this is the story of two remarkable women, a mother and daughter driven into opposition by a terrible betrayal that threatened to destroy the realm.

Catherine de’ Medici was a ruthless pragmatist and powerbroker who dominated the throne for thirty years. Her youngest daughter Marguerite, the glamorous “Queen Margot,” was a passionate free spirit, the only adversary whom her mother could neither intimidate nor control.

When Catherine forces the Catholic Marguerite to marry her Protestant cousin Henry of Navarre against her will, and then uses her opulent Parisian wedding as a means of luring his followers to their deaths, she creates not only savage conflict within France but also a potent rival within her own family.

Pity poor forgotten Marguerite de Valois, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, consistently betrayed by men in her life, constantly at odds with her pushy mother who favored her most despised sibling. Marguerite was intelligent and brave and has been fairly forgotten by most popular history books. Marguerite lived a life filled with danger mainly stemming from the vicious court politics she was born in the middle of. Used as a pawn by her family, Marguerite managed to navigate highly unfavorable social situations in spite of the limited allies she had and ended up saving her ungrateful husband’s life multiple times. This book is fascinating and hard to put down as you feel for Marguerite and the incredibly unfair treatment she received at the hands of her family and husband.

5 out of 5


Review: A Useful Woman by Gioia Diliberto


Frequently recognized as one of the most influential women of the century, and considered a heroine by nurses and social workers around the globe, Jane Addams had to struggle long and hard to earn her place in history. Born in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, she lived during pivotal times when women were only beginning to create new roles for themselves (ironically building on the Victorian ideal of women as ministering angels).

Focusing on her metamorphosis from a frail, small-town girl into a woman who inspired hundreds of others to join her movement to serve, the poor, A Useful Woman, delves into the mysterious ailments and other troubles young Jane faced.

Determined to find a place for herself in a world where women were very limited, Jane Addams became one of the pioneers in social work. In a time when women were supposed to be seen as angels of the home and couldn’t even vote, Addams founded Hull House in an attempt to make a difference in the lives of poor immigrants and also find a focus for her need to do something other than be the spinster aunt. A woman plagued with health issues and always rather distant, Addams found became an advocate for immigrant improvement and reform to social work. She used the stigma of women being more refined and virtuous at the time to her benefit and plunged into a staggering amount of work involving helping her neighborhood. Addams served as one of the few social workers who not only had money, but a desire to live among those she was helping. It was a revolutionary idea at a time when charity work was seen as not much more than giving out help from on high.

Jane’s plight wasn’t unusual at the time. Women were expected to get married and no thought was given to a woman ever having a career or different sexual orientation that may have made that less than desirable. Women at this time were starting to become more accepted into education but were often left at ends with what to do with it afterwards. The author delves into the psychosomatic illnesses that plagued some educated women that we would now contribute to severe mental and emotional distress or depression, but at the time were seen as proof of women being “weak” mentally. She also very openly and fairly addresses the fact that Addams may or may not have had romantic inclinations towards other women, a fact complicated by the flowery letter writing at the time and Jane’s own rather remote personality.

5 out of 5

Review: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger


He fought for Washington, served with Lincoln, witnessed Bunker Hill, and sounded the clarion against slavery on the eve of the Civil War. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, engineered the annexation of Florida, and won the Supreme Court decision that freed the African captives of The Amistad. He served his nation as minister to six countries, secretary of state, senator, congressman, and president.

John Quincy Adams was all of these things and more. In this masterful biography, award winning author Harlow Giles Unger reveals Quincy Adams as a towering figure in the nation’s formative years and one of the most courageous figures in American history, which is why he ranked first in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

Considered to be a failure as a president, John Quincy Adams is a figure who not only suffered multiple political failures (such as the presidency), but found a way to persevere in spite of them and ultimately become a truly monumental champion of free speech, abolition, and protecting the rights of citizens. Now more than ever Adams’ example should shine as a beacon of someone who first and foremost saw himself as a defender of the right to speak out against things seen as a wrong or unfair. Adams became a formidable orator and in spite of constant opposition in Congress demanded his voice be heard saying things those in power did not want to hear, but needed to.

Raised by his ambitious parents to be a politician who would be able to protect and defend the legal and political side of his newly founded country, Adams was able to smooth the way for the fledgling nation with his diplomatic skills. Finding himself out of touch with the common man after becoming president, he eventually became the most fierce fighter for every man’s right to free speech. Not without his flaws, Adams could also be harsh and was plagued with many personal tragedies revolving around his family, from the young death of beloved family members, including a daughter, to the disease of alcoholism that claimed his brothers and sons. Adams was a pioneer in pushing the young nation to establish better education and centers for learning. Mocked for his devotion to knowledge, the Smithsonian Institute was founded under his watch. Determined to speak for what he believed rather than party politics, Adams alienated people and made many enemies, but on his death was almost universally admired for his wisdom and virtue. Unger gives a highly readable glimpse of a man that many have forgotten to some degree.

5 out of 5

Review: Clover Adams by Natalie Dykstra


Clover Adams, a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin, married at twenty-eight the soon-to-be-eminent American historian Henry Adams. She thrived in her role as an intimate of power brokers in Gilded Age Washington, where she was admired for her wit and taste by such luminaries as Henry James, H. H. Richardson, and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Clover so clearly possessed, as one friend wrote, “all she wanted, all this world could give.”

Yet at the center of her story is a haunting mystery. Why did Clover, having begun in the spring of 1883 to capture her world vividly through photography, end her life less than three years later by drinking a chemical developer she used in the darkroom? The key to the mystery lies, as Natalie Dykstra’s searching account makes clear, in Clover’s photographs themselves.

Clover Adams was for all intents and purposes a very intelligent and artistic person overshadowed by a brilliant husband and haunted by a family history of mental illness and depression. Perhaps the saddest part of her biography is the fact that her suicide might have been preventable today with the help of counseling or medicine, but at the turn of the century it was just not something really understood. Another area  of a time period that failed her is the view of women at this time. Clover had the makings of a great photographer, but bowing to the more conservative nature of the time and her husband’s dislike for attention directed toward his family (which a female photographer gaining any reputation other than as a “hobbyist” would have done) Clover made her passion a pass time. What remains is a woman who felt truly alone and becoming useless. Her husband was not a demonstrative man and had a very obvious fondness for another woman even though he truly did seem to love his wife. Clover’s documented insecurity with her looks and fear of abandonment could only have been aggravated by her inability to gauge her husband’s affections. The story is tragically of a woman plagued with a history of depression surrounded by people who could only hope she found a way out of her “black moods”. The most poignant thing is Clover’s photography sheds a light on the isolation and sadness she suffered from, giving a glimpse into a mind those closest too her struggled, but failed to understand.

5 out of 5

Review: Charles Fort by Jim Steinmeyer


By the early 1920s, Americans were discovering that the world was a strange place.

Charles Fort could demonstrate that it was even stranger than anyone suspected. Frogs fell from the sky. Blood rained from the heavens. Mysterious airships visited the Earth. Dogs talked. People disappeared. Fort asked why, but, even more vexing, he also asked why we weren’t paying attention.

Here is the first fully rendered literary biography of the man who, more than any other figure, would define our idea of the anomalous and paranormal. In Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, the acclaimed historian of stage magic Jim Steinmeyer goes deeply into the life of Charles Fort as he saw himself: first and foremost, a writer.

Charles Fort is a person whose name I’ve heard about plenty peripherally but knew very little about as a person. His name is associated with bizarre phenomenon because of his truly unique books. The term “Fortean” is still used. The man himself was something of a riddle. Skeptical of science and religion, a world traveler who eventually hated leaving his home, a man who seemed to be in on the joke, yet was deadly earnest in his criticism of blind belief in science. This biography of him gives an honest picture of a man who considered himself a writer first and someone who challenged the establishment second. He was a man of obsession, particularly in his research, and he would have hated being considered the “father” of anything. But he was one of the first to loudly challenge science in the 20s from a non-religious skeptical stand point. He was fascinating.

4 out of 5

Review: Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon


Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.
Both women became famous writers; fell in love with brilliant but impossible men; and were single mothers who had children out of wedlock; both lived in exile; fought for their position in society; and thought deeply about how we should live. And both women broke almost every rigid convention there was to break: Wollstonecraft chased pirates in Scandinavia. Shelley faced down bandits in Naples. Wollstonecraft sailed to Paris to witness the Revolution. Shelley eloped in a fishing boat with a married man. Wollstonecraft proclaimed that women’s liberty should matter to everyone.

Not only did Wollstonecraft declare the rights of women, her work ignited Romanticism. She inspired Coleridge, Wordsworth and a whole new generation of writers, including her own daughter, who – with her young lover Percy Shelley – read Wollstonecraft’s work aloud by her graveside. At just nineteen years old and a new mother herself, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein whilst travelling around Italy with Percy and roguish Lord Byron (who promptly fathered a child by Mary’s stepsister). It is a seminal novel, exploring the limitations of human nature and the power of invention at a time of great religious and scientific upheaval. Moreover, Mary Shelley would become the editor of her husband’s poetry after his early death – a feat of scholarship that did nothing less than establish his literary reputation.

This was the nonfiction I chose to go along with reading The Determined Heart as it appeared to be one of the most recent biographies of Mary Shelley (whom The Determined Heart was about). I have read several books over Mary Shelley, but I would have to point out this one as the biography I’d send people to if asked to choose one about the author of Frankenstein. Alternating chapters between Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, the book is honest about their flaws as well as their genius. And both women were nearly forgotten for their genius based strictly on their gender and scandalous lifestyles, a situation compounded in Wollstonecraft’s situation by an ill-advised biography courtesy of her husband. Both women defied their time period in their beliefs and lifestyles and both women were given to bouts of depression, a malady that was not recognized or understood at the time, leading Wollstonecraft to garner a reputation as being irrational (and leading to two suicide attempts) and Shelley to come across as “cold” (her last years with Percy Shelley were plagued with conflict between the two and contempt from his friends towards her as she understandably failed to shake the depression of losing two children).

It is a tragedy that these two women never knew each other because their brilliance has changed literary and philosophical history. Shelley is almost entirely responsible for the rehabilitation of her husband’s posthumous career, being careful to paint him in a light that appealed to Victorian sensibilities (and excising his flaws, of which he had a LOT). Wollstonecraft was one of the foremost feminists and an accomplished author herself who is just recently being recognized for her literary innovations. They were complicated, intelligent, little understood women who paid for being ahead of their time. Tangled family situations, complicated love lives, and betrayal followed both women, but neither one ever left their positions as being champions of women throughout their lives.

5 out of 5