Review: Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires by Andrew K. Amelinckx

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Murder and dark deeds shadowed the extravagance of the Gilded Age in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. In the summer of 1893, a tall and well-dressed burglar plundered the massive summer mansions of the upper crust. A visit from President Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 ended in tragedy when a trolley car smashed into the presidential carriage, killing a Secret Service agent. Shocking the nation, a psychotic millworker opened fire on a packed streetcar, leaving three dead and five wounded. From axe murders to botched bank jobs, author Andrew Amelinckx dredges up the forgotten underbelly of the Berkshires with unforgettable stories of greed, jealousy and madness from the Gilded Age.

For those interested in the history of crime, this is an interesting book about forgotten crimes from American history. You’d think one of the first mass public shootings would be something you heard more about in other histories of crime, and yet the tragic mass killing in a streetcar by a mentally disturbed man remains largely forgotten. The author’s style is rather sparse and these feel more like magazine or newspaper articles than a deep introspection of the events or time period. It is an interesting little book though and while some of the stories occasionally get a little dry with facts, the events themselves are so bizarre and pretty much undocumented on the whole that the book is interesting in spite of that.

4 out of 5

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Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

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A groundbreaking retelling and reclaiming of Anne Boleyn’s life and legacy puts old questions to rest and raises some surprising new ones.

Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Susan Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.

Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and reimagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto-“mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies.

It’s amazing how much we think we know about Anne Boleyn, arguably one of the most famous queens in history, and how little we actually do. Most of the information about her that popular media has latched on to based on its salacious nature came from men who hated her and had every reason to lie about their impressions of her. Anne herself is an enigma, cast by biographers as everything from a wanton temptress to an innocent victim. So where is the true Anne? Probably somewhere in between. A woman intelligent enough keep a king determined to marry her in spite of political upheaval, she also was a woman who a man at that time would probably find very hard to be married to. Plain talk and personal opinions might be fine in a mistress that has caught your eye, but in a wife who was expected to be seen and not heard, be demure and obedient, particularly with a man like Henry VIII, the very fact that Anne was Anne and couldn’t be anything other probably contributed to her downfall. Was Anne a feminist hero? Not exactly, but Bordo makes a very plausible argument that it was Anne’s determination to be nothing other than what she was that was probably the reason she made so many enemies in the boy’s club of Tudor court and eventually with her husband.

Most forgotten have been Anne’s contributions to the Reformation movement. She was a bright woman with deep interest in the Reformation and it is more than likely her clashing with Cromwell over how confiscated papal money was being redistributed (Anne was disturbed that it was going into private funds, not into educational and charitable coffers like she was under the impression it would be) that eventually led to his very concerted efforts to have her removed from power. Bordo also reveals a little into the psyche of Henry VIII, a man who seemed capable of discarding of a woman he fought for for years without a second thought (he spent the morning after her execution partying with Jane Seymour). Henry is a fascinating study into a man who would probably be diagnosed as narcissistic or borderline today. The unsettling way he could turn his affections violently off towards people he had initially loved is disturbing (and a pattern…Anne, Cromwell, More, and many others didn’t make it out of Henry’s former affections alive). It all goes to reveal that Anne was probably playing a game far more dangerous than she even realized and one that few people would have succeeded at.

The books is the strongest when analyzing the arguments about Anne herself and picking through the historical material. A word of caution though, just like the author discounts many of the accounts of Anne by those who would have been disposed to dislike her we have to keep in mind that the author DOES obviously like Anne and interprets some things very much in her favor without a huge amount of evidence (though many of her arguments are very logical and based on the psychology involved ring true). The book gets considerably weaker when it dwells on the many fictional versions of Anne (particularly The Tudors version). It is a fascinating read though for those interested in trying to get to the bottom of who Anne Boleyn was (and maybe the real answer is she is to some degree what the times make her).

4 out of 5

Review: Samurai William by Giles Milton

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With all the adventure, derring-do, and bloodcurdling battle scenes of his earlier book, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, acclaimed historian Giles Milton dazzles readers with the true story of William Adams—the first Englishman to set foot in Japan (and the inspiration for James Clavell’s bestselling novel Shogun). Beginning with Adams’s startling letter to the East India Company in 1611—more than a decade after he’d arrived in Japan—Samurai William chronicles the first foray by the West into that mysterious closed-off land. Drawing upon the journals and letters of Adams as well as the other Englishmen who came looking for him, Samurai William presents a unique glimpse of Japan before it once again closed itself off from the world for another two hundred years

Featuring a bizarre footnote in history, this very readable book introduces William Adams, a man who became stranded in Japan and ended up making it his home. Adams was able to navigate the intricate etiquette of Japanese culture, learn the language, and became invaluable to the survival of the first group of English traders in Japan. The victim of jealousy and distrust by his countrymen, Adams was still loyal and did what he could to help. Adams was a curious figure at a turning point in Japanese history. His battles with the Jesuits and Dutch are fascinating and a little known part of Japanese history is thrilling. Adams was perhaps ahead of his time, understanding the best way to navigate the culture of the land he had become stranded in was to respect it and modify his own behavior, something that the majority of the European populace found themselves unable to do when encountering other cultures.

5 out of 5

Review: A Useful Woman by Gioia Diliberto

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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: Bootleg by Karen Blumenthal

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It began with the best of intentions. Worried about the effects of alcohol on American families, mothers and civic leaders started a movement to outlaw drinking in public places. Over time, their protests, petitions, and activism paid off—when a Constitutional Amendment banning the sale and consumption of alcohol was ratified, it was hailed as the end of public drunkenness, alcoholism, and a host of other social ills related to booze. Instead, it began a decade of lawlessness, when children smuggled (and drank) illegal alcohol, the most upright citizens casually broke the law, and a host of notorious gangsters entered the public eye. Filled with period art and photographs, anecdotes, and portraits of unique characters from the era, this fascinating book looks at the rise and fall of the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition.

Prohibition is generally a hard thing to explain to high schoolers. Alcohol is just such a normal part of life that most teenagers can’t imagine a time when it would be illegal to the general public. This book gives  good background on why Prohibition got passed and has plenty of ties to the modern “war on drugs”. It’s not that Prohibition was a bad idea, it’s just that it wasn’t enforced and there was no way of knowing how blatantly Americans would defy the new law. This is a good, easily understandable explanation of how things got so out of hand and how something that was perceived to be for the good of the nation ended up crashing and burning. Lots of pictures, lots of well explained background, and the author does an excellent job of not condemning Prohibition out of hand, but pointing out WHY it didn’t work and why it was such an issue to begin with.

4 out of 5

Review: The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

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In February 1915, a member of one of Canada’s wealthiest families was shot and killed on the front porch of his home in Toronto as he was returning from work. Carrie Davies, an 18-year-old domestic servant, quickly confessed. But who was the victim here? Charles “Bert” Massey, a scion of a famous family, or the frightened, perhaps mentally unstable Carrie, a penniless British immigrant? When the brilliant lawyer Hartley Dewart, QC, took on her case, his grudge against the powerful Masseys would fuel a dramatic trial that pitted the old order against the new, wealth and privilege against virtue and honest hard work.

Was a housemaid able to get away with murder (or at least manslaughter) because she was a virgin? The answer is yes, pretty much. Granted Carrie Davies is a sympathetic figure, but the fact remains that she killed a man who at the time was posing no discernible threat to her. While Bert Massey possibly did make an indecent pass at Davies, the mousey little maid’s story didn’t add up completely (why didn’t she leave? why didn’t she tell her sympathetic sister? how could she have been in a “state of panic” all day and not leave the house?) and Davies was acquitted more based on the fact that she was an “innocent” than the actual facts of the case. But the other side of this case is the fact that domestic servants really DIDN’T have any recourse against predatory employers. No rape convictions were ever upheld and for a society that said that a woman was “fallen” and untrustworthy if she wasn’t a virgin even in cases of rape, most women had no other way out.

What unfolds is a story about a woman who possibly got away with murder, but may have had no other choice based on society at the time. It’s also about Canada itself, a country trying to establish itself away from its British loyalty and make an identity for itself during the Great War. A maelstrom of prejudice, nationalism, prudery, misogyny and industrialization formed to cause an oddity in murder cases. A case that was a sign of its time, yet also a sign of things to come.

4 out of 5

Review: The Great Pretenders by Jan Bondeson

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Jan Bondeson, M.D., focuses his medical expertise and insightful wit on the great unsolved mysteries of disputed identity of the last two hundred years. Did the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette really die in the Temple Tower, or did the Lost Dauphin reappear among the throngs of pretenders to the throne? And what does DNA testing reveal about the Dauphin’s mummified heart? Who was Kaspar Hauser: an abused child, the crown prince of Baden, or a pathological liar? In this highly entertaining work covering the most famous cases of disputed identity, Jan Bondeson uncovers all the evidence, then applies his medical knowledge and logical thinking to ascertain the true stories behind these fascinating histories.

People always want to figure out a mystery, even more so when there appears a person who was supposed to have died under unfortunate circumstances. We want to right a cosmic wrong. Yet in the majority of cases it can pretty definitively be said that it’s just wistful thinking and the delusions or lies of someone claiming to be the lost famous person. The author carefully untangles the circumstances and evidence around some of the most famous cases of disputed identity. Never mocking those who believed the pretenders and always trying to keep a fair hand, the evidence stacks up especially with modern advancements. Perhaps the most fascinating part is WHY the person originally went missing or who these people actually were. There’s the additional interest of why these pretenders do what they do. Is it fame? Is it a search for money? Is it for attention? Sometimes the speculated reasoning behind these con games is as hand to look away from as the actual mystery.

4 out of 5

Review: Castles, Customs, and Kings by Debra Brown

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A compilation of essays from the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book provides a wealth of historical information from Roman Britain to early twentieth century England. Over fifty different authors share hundreds of real life stories and tantalizing tidbits discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.

Read to go along with Shriver, this is a very informative collection of essays by a variety of historical fiction authors. The interest level and writing varies from essay to essay. Some are rather awkwardly turned into plugs for the particular author’s books probably because they all seem to be collected from a website. And some of the topics are just boring and dry, not because the author is bad per se, but because the topic is just uninteresting. The beginning of the book in particular I found far more interesting than the later part.

3 out of 5

Review: Scandalous! by Hallie Frye

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Do you love a good scandal? This book includes 50 juicy pop culture, political, and entertainment-related scandals complete with photos, event synopses, and a look at why it went down in history and how it continues to influence us today. Other features include famous quotes and a section on where the players are now. Teens will get the dish on:

Milli Vanilli’s lip-syncing
the Clinton-Lewinsky affair
the Biggie and Tupac murders
the Kent State shooting
the OJ Simpson Murder trial
Patty Hearst’s kidnapping

As a teacher I often found my students were not aware of many of the pop culture scandals or references that have become important parts of American history. This book is excellent (so much so I intend to buy it for the library next year) at explaining the gist of what happened with the scandal quickly and in an easy fashion to understand and then also addressing why the scandal was important in how it changed history. This would have been a great tool for me to use in the classroom as the sections are all broken down to two pages yet still manage to express the main points of the scandal. Of course some of the scandals were pretty sexually explicit, but the book tries to explain without being too graphic and does a pretty good job of not shying away from some things, but also not being tasteless. The feature where the people involved in the scandal have bits about their lives after revealed is also very interesting.

4 out of 5

Review: It Happened in Kansas by Sarah Smarsh

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It Happened in Kansas features over 25 chapters in Kansas history.  Lively and entertaining, this book brings the varied and fascinating history of the Sunflower State to life.

Ah Kansas, land of Dorothy, sunflowers, really flat land and more sunflowers. I read this book to go along with The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster as part of the action takes place in turn of the century Kansas. It is a credit to this author that she actually made Kansas very interesting to the point that I looked into taking a road trip there. Scouring through the stranger parts of Kansas history, Smarsh paints a picture of a state that is often where major historical issues start for some reason. From Bleeding Kansas to Brown v. Board of Education, Kansas has a tendency to be a place where things come to a head. A fascinating home of flight, Exodusters and the flying spaghetti monster, this is a great look at a state that often doesn’t get much attention.

4 out of 5