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Merle

Merle

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

The Invention of Air - Steven Johnson

This short book is partly a biography of Joseph Priestley, a prolific and divisive 18th century figure who made influential discoveries in science (including discovering that plants replace carbon dioxide with oxygen, though he didn’t put it in quite those terms), helped found the Unitarian church, and was a bit of a political firebrand. Priestley’s life and work are interesting subjects, and with his eternal optimism, chaotic experimental procedures and determination to keep nothing – whether scientific discovery or radical religious opinion – to himself, he’s certainly a colorful figure. But this book is less impressive: there’s a little biography, a little science, a little religion, a little history, and it doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts. The author has a tendency to pontificate on subjects that seemed much more profound to him than they were to me, like connections between the location of coal deposits and Priestley’s life’s trajectory. But with generous margins and spacing, it’s a quick read, and I learned a bit from it even though I didn’t love it.

The Best 10 Books I Read in 2019

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir - Jean Guerrero Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions - Johann Hari The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures - Anne Fadiman In the Country: Stories - Mia Alvar 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus - Charles C. Mann Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming - Inara Verzemnieks Clear Light of Day - Anita Desai Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War - Helen Thorpe Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India - Sujatha Gidla

Ordinarily I love to criticize, but the end of the year is my time to reflect on the best books I read during the year, and recommend them to all of you! I read a lot of great books in 2019, so it was a tough competition, but here are the best 10 books (out of 71 total that I finished) of the year.

Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (review)

Destiny Disrupted A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

An informative, wide-ranging, and even exciting history, this is a fascinating primer on the history of the Muslim world. It answered questions I didn’t even know I had, making sense of history all while telling a compelling narrative.

Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero (review)

Crux A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero

The best memoir I read in 2019, this is an intense story of a troubled family, in which the author peels back the layers of generational trauma in Mexico and the U.S. It is dark but brilliant.

Lost Connections by Johann Hari (review)

Lost Connections Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari

Possibly the most important book I read in 2019, this is the story of a journalist examining the science of depression, and realizing it doesn’t tell us what drug companies would have us believe. It provides a look at the real causes and solutions that’s relevant to anyone who wants to live a good life.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman(review)

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

An incredible work of journalistic nonfiction, the author uses the life of one family with a severely ill daughter to illuminate the culture clash between Hmong refugees and their American neighbors, particularly regarding medical treatment. A great book for anyone interested in cross-cultural misunderstanding and medicine, or the culture and recent history of the Hmong.

In the Country by Mia Alvar (review)

In the Country by Mia Alvar

The best work of fiction I read in 2019, this is a fantastic short story collection, featuring Filipinos both at home and abroad. Great writing and great characters – this is one of those authors who can do in a short story what others require a novel to accomplish.

1491 by Charles C. Mann (review)

1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

The most eye-opening book I read in 2019, this is a real history of the Americas before Columbus, stripping away myth and stereotype. A detailed account that will likely be new to most readers.

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks(review)

Among the Living and the Dead A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe by Inara Verzemnieks

The most poetic of my top books of 2019, this is a lovely multigenerational memoir of a family from Estonia – both those who fled as refugees, and those who stayed behind. It’s a thoughtful history of a place and its people as well as the author’s own journey of discovery.

Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai (review)

Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

The best novel I read in 2019, this short book presents the emotionally layered and nuanced tale of four adult siblings and their difficult relationships.

Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe (review)

Soldier Girls The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe

A fascinating journalistic account of three women in the U.S. National Guard serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s an honest, warts-and-all look at real life in the military from three very different perspectives, written by an incisive researcher and compelling storyteller.

Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla (review)

Ants Among Elephants An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla

A fascinating family memoir of an untouchable family in 20th century India, focusing on the author’s uncle, an activist, and mother, a struggling professor. A great look at real lives behind the stereotypes.


And some honorable mentions, because I read more excellent books this year than a top-10 list will allow:

Night at the Fiestas
Olive Kitteridge
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815

Happy reading to all in 2020!

A Royal Affair by Stella Tillyard

A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings - Stella Tillyard

This is a very interesting historical biography, though weirdly conceived. The subtitle should be read not as a description of George III’s siblings but a qualification on who the book is about, and it's not George III, despite the cover image. Of the nine siblings, the youngest, Caroline Matilda, gets more than half of this book, and for good reason. Married at age 15 to the young King of Denmark, whose mental health was deteriorating rapidly, she embarked on an increasingly blatant affair with her husband’s doctor, Johann Struensee, and the pair grabbed the opportunity to take over the government of Denmark, dismiss all the old guard, and institute various Enlightenment reforms. Then within a couple of years everything came crashing down.

So, that’s a wild and fascinating story, and if her life had been a little longer maybe the whole book would have been about Caroline Matilda. As is the author fills out the rest of the book with the, by comparison, run-of-the-mill scandals of three of her brothers, Edward, William, and Henry, who being wealthy and privileged young men with no responsibilities, partied a lot and had love affairs and got secretly married. I think even Tillyard was a bit bored with them, especially the latter two, because her writing about their shenanigans tends to focus more on the women in their lives – who come across as more interesting, maybe because they had more to lose or maybe because Tillyard just finds women’s history more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining to read about royal princes running about in disguise and being mistaken for highwaymen, but the brothers’ sections boil down to 18th century celebrity gossip, without larger import.

In the Introduction, Tillyard offers an enticing rationale for her choice of subject: “Biography . . . rarely dwells for very long on brothers and sisters and the importance they can have in one another’s lives. Perhaps because I am from a large family myself, my work has tended to go the other way, to be horizontal, seeking in the tangled web of brotherly and sisterly relations other clues to what makes us who we are.” But in focusing only on the scandalous siblings, I don’t think she quite lives up to that promise. George III is here for the role he plays in his younger siblings’ lives, but it’s in no way a biography of him; the three siblings who died between the ages of 15 and 20 get barely a mention; and Augusta, the eldest, who survived but was not scandalous, rarely appears. And there's no particular indication that the playboy brothers influenced Caroline Matilda or vice versa; these segments seem totally separate.

But it’s an interesting book nonetheless; Tillyard is a strong writer and storyteller, bringing the scenes of history to life, and seems to have done her research well. It felt a little dense – which may be as much an issue of typesetting as writing – and took longer to read than I’d have estimated from the page count, but for Caroline Matilda’s story in particular it is worth the read.

The Pursuit of Glory by Tim Blanning

The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 - Timothy C.W. Blanning

This is a thorough, engaging and informative history: it takes on a lot (more than 150 years of history in a whole slew of countries, in 677 pages), and does an excellent job with it, offering interesting detail, analysis and quotations by contemporary observers.

Interestingly, the book is organized topically rather than chronologically or geographically. The first section discusses transportation, population and daily life, the economy, agriculture and the status and rebellions of peasants. The second discusses rulers and governments in various countries and the overall trends under their reigns, as well as political trends and reforms. (Blanning seems to incline toward a "great man" view of history.) The third is about religion, royal courts, art and the Enlightenment. And the final section is all about wars and diplomacy. It’s a successful organization that allows the author to delve into each topic, observing how it manifested in various countries, without getting too caught up in the “traditional” history of battles and so on (though after reading the final section it was hard to imagine how anyone managed to get anything else done with all this constant fighting!). He's much more focused on drawing the meaning out of history than just telling us what happened when.

Unsurprisingly given the number of countries in Europe, all do not get equal treatment. There’s a lot about France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, Prussia and Russia. There’s some information about Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. There’s very little about Scandanavia, Switzerland, Portugal, Denmark or Poland, and the part of Europe under Ottoman rule at the time might as well not have existed.

My real complaint about the book is that it doesn’t cite its sources; I realize this is a synthesis, and sources are sometimes referenced in the text itself, but this is still bad form in nonfictional writing.

Overall though, a very informative book that manages to relate large amounts of history through engaging narrative and well-reasoned argument. I recommend it.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - Cal Newport

This is a very practical productivity book despite a big topic. The first third I found mostly worthless – it’s a long-winded sales pitch for working deeply, i.e., doing something that is intellectually challenging and requires focus. The last two-thirds though consist of practical advice, and sparked some serious thought about some of my habits. Some salient points:

 

- In the modern workplace, it’s often difficult for “knowledge workers” to gauge how well they are doing at their jobs, and easy to substitute the appearance of busyness (packing your schedule, quick email responses, etc.) for valuable work. But this leads to a trap where much of your work is easy rote stuff and doesn’t actually make use of your expertise.

- It can be hard to get your brain to focus on deep work, especially if you’ve trained it to reach for distraction the moment you’re a little bored or uncomfortable. For this reason, the author recommends not reaching for your phone every time you find yourself unoccupied for a few minutes (waiting in line and so on) – your instinct will be the same when asked to do something intellectually challenging. Let yourself be bored instead.

- Figure out when you can engage in deep work and schedule it. Having rituals around how you begin your work, and rules for the time when you’re doing it, can help keep you in the zone.

- It can also be helpful to keep a visible scoreboard for yourself and schedule a regular check-in to hold yourself accountable.

- You need downtime, to let you mull over things subconsciously and recharge energy. The author recommends leaving work by 5:30 (assuming a regular business schedule) and avoiding weekend work, arguing that the work done later in the evening is usually not that important and will only leave you more mentally tired.

- Schedule times when you allow distractions; schedule your day to make the best use of it. Structure your leisure time to avoid spending it just clicking low-value internet links.

- Be disciplined with use of email and social media. Even if you really do have to be regularly available by email, you can schedule regular check-in times rather than being constantly available.

 

A couple aspects that were less helpful to me:

 

- The book assumes that email and social media are massive distractions in the reader’s work and personal life, and recommends cutting back on them severely. Certain advice (not responding to unnecessary email or responding in such a way as to curtail back-and-forth; quitting social media altogether) is rather drastic if you already have a relatively healthy relationship with these tools.

- The author appears to have an unexamined but notable male-centric view of the world, and only manages to come up with a couple of female success stories in the entire book. I wondered at first if I was being overly sensitive to this before seeing that many other reviewers noticed the same.

- The anecdotes that begin most chapters are boring and can be skipped.

 

That said, I definitely found a lot of food for thought here and think this is a useful book overall, especially if you’re feeling overly distractible and want to add more focused, meaningful work to your life.

City of Light, City of Poison by Holly Tucker

City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris - Holly Tucker

This true account of a massive criminal investigation in 1670’s Paris could have been much better. In brief, many people accused others of involvement in poison and witchcraft, and at least some of the poisoning seems to have been true (various poisons were in fact found in the possession of some of these folks, and in the case of one noblewoman, her father and brothers all really did die under similar and suspicious circumstances). Louis XIV appointed Nicolas de la Reynie police chief to reduce the high crime rate in Paris at the time (including lots of murders), but made him back off this particular investigation once fingers began to be pointed at some of Louis’s own mistresses.

It’s interesting stuff, and a quick read; you could likely read it in a single sitting if so inclined. That said, Tucker takes a somewhat novelistic, almost sensationalist approach, despite the fact that she does seem to stick to documented historical facts. There are many chapters about the doings of Louis’s mistresses and female associates (including the sudden death of his sister-in-law Henrietta Anne, sister of Charles II of England), which never really merge with the poison storyline. At best the history of the mistresses provides some background on why one or two of them might have been as cutthroat as was alleged (though only sort of; on their way out these women got significant parting gifts from the king), but it’s all indirect and spends a lot of time with mistresses who were never even implicated. After all the talk about Henrietta Anne I thought we’d get at least a theory on who might have poisoned her, but the author offers very little analysis in the end.

Because the author doesn’t really analyze the facts presented, it’s a bit hard to tell, but I had the impression she was more on the side of the authorities – and more inclined to believe the confessions of people who had been imprisoned for months or sometimes even years without trial, but with the ever-present threat of torture and execution – than I was. Judicial torture was a commonplace part of the process, though strangely, it occurred between sentencing and execution. (I don’t know if the examples the author presents are representative, but in the book, only one person provided meaningful new information under torture, and she later recanted.) The torture is described in unpleasant detail and recurs frequently throughout the book. Noblewomen fared far better in court than commoners, some of whom seem to have been convicted and executed before their cases were fully investigated. There’s a witch hunt quality to the whole thing in the figurative as well as literal sense, and by the time Marie-Anne Mancini told off the police chief in court I was cheering her on. Oddly there’s no discussion of the gender dynamics at play here either – given that most of the accused appear to have been women, that abortion was a major accusation and that a common motivation for women accused of poisoning seems to have been domestic abuse and/or escaping forced marriage.

At any rate, colorful history but not very substantive. The author certainly has storytelling skills, but the book is lightweight.

Princesses by Flora Fraser

Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III - Flora Fraser

Interesting subject, but I fall into the camp that found Fraser's writing to be very dry, which makes this quite a long book. It seems like a substantial amount of it is undigested research - the royal family went to such-and-such a palace to celebrate such-and-such an occasion - maybe because it was intended to be more of an academic biography that simply records facts, but as a non-academic what I'm looking for in biographies is meaning. With all these quoted letters from the young princesses to their governesses apologizing for bad behavior, for instance: what do they actually tell us about the princesses and their lives and culture? What sort of behavior were the girls getting up to, and were some less obedient than others? Did they write the letters of their own volition or because another governess told them to? Without any of this context - which Fraser doesn't provide - quoting a few of these letters doesn't actually tell us anything. Isn't the historian's job to sort through all this primary source material and sift narrative and meaning out of it to share with the reader? Maybe I'm asking for more hand-holding than the type of writing Fraser aspired to here is meant to provide, but at any rate I quit at page 100. I debated a lot whether to continue though, since there is a lot of interesting information here and the six princesses seem to have had interesting lives.

Versailles by Tony Spawforth

Versailles: A Biography of a Palace - Tony Spawforth

This is mostly a social history of Versailles in the reigns of Louis XIV through Louis XVI, and as such it’s pretty interesting (though the first couple of chapters, which focus more on the architectural history of the palace, were less so to me). It answers questions such as: how did people (mostly nobility) get jobs at court, and why did they want them? How did courtiers gain access to the king? How much privacy did the monarchs and their families actually have? Did these people even bathe? (Answer: rarely, and in many cases only for medicinal purposes.)

Although it’s interesting material at a relatively short length (254 pages of text followed by endnotes) and Spawforth’s writing is perfectly readable, I still moved through it a bit slowly and wasn’t as engaged as I would have liked. This might be because I recently read a similar book about the English court at the same time – which in many ways wasn’t as different as you might expect. However, I think the real reason is that while Spawforth conveys facts well enough, he isn’t much of a storyteller: there are a lot of recurring “characters” here, mostly royalty and a handful of nobles who wrote prolifically about their life at court, but little personality emerges and there’s not much sense of what their lives were like outside the context of the specific anecdotes illustrating the author’s points.

At any rate, interesting and accessible book, but not one I’d recommend you go out of your way to find unless you have a special interest in the subject matter.

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie

I enjoyed this book a lot: it’s an entertaining and accessible biography that is nevertheless serious and thorough, and with a fascinating subject to boot. Born a princess in a tiny German principality in the early 18th century, Catherine (actually named Sophia, until the then-Empress of Russia renamed her upon her conversion to Orthodoxy) was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne. Unfortunately, her early friendship with her deeply damaged teenaged husband soon soured, and when he ascended the throne almost 20 years later, Catherine soon deposed him and took the throne for herself. She ruled for nearly 35 years, expanded Russia’s territory, attempted with limited success to bring Enlightenment ideas to the country, carried on lively correspondence with philosophers, patronized the arts, and had a lively love life that may or may not have involved a second, secret marriage but certainly included a succession of boy toys in her later years.

 

Massie gives each part of Catherine’s life its due, from her childhood through the end of her reign; once she takes the throne, he spends more time on the wars and policy issues than her personal life, while still giving space to the latter. Fortunately, many of Catherine’s letters survived, and she wrote a memoir (though hardly a complete one), which allows the author to integrate her own words into the text. It’s quite a history lesson – I learned a ton about Russia and about European politics at the time – but Massie’s writing remains highly readable and entertaining. I read this with as much enjoyment as if it had been a novel. Massie’s take on Catherine is admiring but not hagiographic; it’s clear, for instance, how some of her ideals fell by the wayside as she grew older.

 

Nevertheless, there are some issues. Massie cites sources only for direct quotations, leaving readers in the dark as to the provenance of his other information. This is particularly problematic when he writes about Catherine’s childhood, drawing distinctions between what she wrote in her memoir and how she “really felt” (how does he know)? While he doesn’t seem to be making any particular argument with the book, he also doesn’t highlight where his interpretation may differ from the mainstream: he may be entirely convinced based on his research that Catherine’s son and heir was fathered by her lover rather than her husband, but it appears this view is not as universally accepted as his treatment of it as uncontroversial fact might have you believe. Finally, he seems too forgiving of Catherine’s failure to do anything about serfdom, though to his credit he does describe its abuses in detail.

 

All that said, I think this is an excellent biography, both entertaining and educational. And I appreciated the sections in which Massie goes a bit beyond his primary subject: the French Revolution chapter has come in for criticism, but as someone who came into it not understanding how events proceeded there, I found it helpful. Other sections, like the mini-biography of John Paul Jones, seemed a little tangential but were still interesting and helped paint a fuller picture of the times. I would definitely recommend this book to those who enjoy popular history or biography.

Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century by Susan Naquin and Evelyn Rawski

Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century - Susan Naquin, Evelyn S. Rawski

This is an informative book, but a very academic one, in the sense that it speaks in generalities, abstractions and conclusions rather than specific people or incidents, colorful examples or stories around major events. The authors cover a lot of information about politics, the economy, religion, social structure, employment and leasing relationships, etc., in 18th century China. This is a good book if you're interested in crops and industries located in specific areas, the status of intellectuals and civil service examinations, who took responsibility for public works, how tightly controlled by the emperor different areas of the country were, and what popular pilgrimage sites were located in different regions. It's not as good if you're looking for a sense of what people's lives were like, or if you want your history enlivened by human interest anecdotes; aside from emperors, who are discussed in terms of their policies, I think only a couple of people are even mentioned by name. And it definitely seems like a compilation of research rather than a book in dialogue with others, since it seems to stick to pretty anodyne information without much analysis. The cultural information in the first half is still interesting, though the "Regional Societies" section dominating the second half was a slog, largely documenting the major products and ethnic groups of each region. (Somewhat confusingly, the authors have chosen to refer to ethnic minorities by their historical Chinese names, such as "Miao" for the Hmong, rather than the names modern readers are more likely to be familiar with. They use archaic names for cities, like Peking, as well.) I don't want to penalize an academic book too hard for being academic (though I really wish more popular histories were available in English), but it would have been nice if it were more engaging.

Medicine by Steve Parker

Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History - Steve Parker

This is an interesting and well-designed coffee table book, which nevertheless contains a lot of text – definitely not one I read through in a single sitting. It covers a lot of material and some of the illustrations are actually really cool, including pictures of historical medical instruments and microscopes. It’s definitely western-centric although I think the publishers would deny it: there are spreads on Asian and Middle Eastern medicine but they are not the focus, and scientists and doctors from these cultures tend to be mentioned as a collective, rather than being individually profiled like the white Europeans (I’m not sure a single person of color is profiled in the book. Maybe Ibn Sina). The organization is also a bit rough: officially the book is organized chronologically, but really it’s organized topically – so diabetes comes up at the point in history when a treatment was developed, and then there’s some information at the beginning of the spread on historical discoveries about diabetes. That said, it’s a coffee table book, and I think it’s pretty good for what these big illustrated books are intended to do.

The People of Paris by Daniel Roche

The People of Paris: An Essay In Popular Culture In The 18th Century - Daniel Roche

Certainly an informative book, but claiming a “highly readable style” is taking it too far. This is an academic text about the material and social conditions of Parisians in the 18th century. Parts of it (the first chapter or two in particular) consist of wordy academic language that doesn’t say very much, but other parts are extremely specific – what items of clothing were owned by what percentage of the population upon their death; what percentage of people picked up for crimes were capable of signing their names, etc. The author is very explicit about what sources he’s using and seems careful not to overstate his data. He’s also very interested in distinctions among “the people” rather than treating them as a monolith – servants lived differently from wage earners, for instance, even at the same income level, and were generally the means of transmission of culture between the rich and the poor. Also just some really interesting stuff in here: apparently everything was for sale on the streets of Paris, from songs (apparently people would actually buy the sheet music after hearing them sung, which is rather sweet) to secondhand food (leftovers from their employers’ tables being sold off by servants).

I should also add that despite the title, this is more than an essay – at 277 pages of text (there are no endnotes or reference pages though there are occasional footnotes – the sources are discussed in the text itself and most of the content appears to come from the author's original research), it’s a pretty standard-sized book.

My criticisms of the book are perhaps beside the point since I’m not sure it was ever intended for a general audience anyway, but here they are: first, it assumes knowledge of French history and society on the reader’s part. Even without having much I generally understood it, but there were some weird bits, like where the author refuted the notion that the Parisian poor didn’t have children because they either abandoned them or the kids ran away…. by giving statistics on the class from which abandoned children came, to prove that a large percentage came from higher up the social hierarchy. I was so confused by this – why were all of these people abandoning their kids? How do we know who was responsible? What did abandonment mean in this context (apparently some parents later returned)? At what age were children actually running away, and what happened to all these solo kids? Relatedly, the translator – despite translating the book from French to English presumably for those who, you know, don’t read French – left a number of words in French, including occasional key concepts and the titles of all of the books mentioned that were owned by Parisians.

Overall, I think this book will be quite useful for those doing research on eighteenth century Parisian society, less so for anybody else. Interesting stuff though and the author certainly seems to have reached his conclusions as a result of careful study.

On the Rez by Ian Frazier

On The Rez - Ian Frazier

This is an interesting book, though as others have said, the last third is by far the best. Frazier, a white travel writer, befriends an Oglala Sioux man named Le from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and writes about his time hanging out with Le and his friends and family. He also writes more broadly about Native Americans today and about the last few centuries of history. The last third of the book is a biography of a basketball star named SuAnne Big Crow who was an inspiration for many before her tragic death as a teenager.

The content is interesting and Frazier’s writing is fine, but I do think he could have done more with the first two-thirds of the book. These chapters are often pretty diffuse, and he goes off on some weird tangents, like trying to hunt down every historically Native American bar in the country and chronicle their bar fights. Some of the broader information he provides is interesting, including some firsthand accounts of the American Indian Movement. But the first two-thirds was a bit of a drag overall.

I also wondered about the quality of Frazier’s information. At one point, in a brief discussion of eastern tribes, he mentions “the Lumbee of North Carolina, a tribe which has lived for a hundred years in the mountains around Lumberton unrecognized by anyone but themselves.” It’s cool that he mentioned the Lumbee, a group few Americans have heard of although they’re apparently the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, but basically everything in that sentence is wrong. Lumberton is nowhere near mountains – it’s in the flat coastal plain of eastern North Carolina – the Lumbee have been around for a lot longer than a hundred years, and the tribe gained state recognition in the 19th century, and a weird mostly-useless federal acknowledgment in 1956. (You can read more here or here). As always, when an author messes up the things you know, you have to wonder at the accuracy of the things you don’t.

All that said, SuAnne Big Crow’s story is really fantastic, and it’s worth reading the book for that part alone. Frazier is on much surer footing here with a narrative to follow and many people who knew SuAnne to contribute their memories, and I wish he’d spent more of the book on this type of writing and less on hanging out with Le.

At any rate, interesting book, and the author seems to be respectful and to view Native Americans as actual people rather than embodiments of stereotype, whether good or bad. He could have allocated his page count better, but it’s worth a read for those who are interested in the topic.

The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley

The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace - Lucy Worsley

This is an entertaining, readable, yet well-researched look at the royal courts of George I and II of England (early to mid-18th century). Worsley picks out a handful of people and follows them throughout the book: a royal mistress who was also the queen’s lady-in-waiting; an ambitious painter who got the commission for a palace mural; a few hanger-ons who wrote extensively about their contacts with the royals; a feral child who was brought to court as a curiosity. A solid chunk of the book is also spent on the domestic intrigues of the royal family themselves – and wow, did these people tear each other apart at every opportunity – but we also learn a fair bit about the lives of the people around them. The book is worth reading for its storytelling alone.

Meanwhile, it taught me a lot about how the royal court functioned. The crowds of nobles at court, as it turned out, weren’t just the idle rich; much of what they were scheming for was jobs, which paid actual salaries, upon which many of them depended. Even menial positions close to the royalty were occupied by the nobility: we see a lot of one equerry, a sort of unarmed honor guard whose job was to follow the king around all day without apparently having much personal interaction with him, and who nevertheless is the son of an earl. Overall being a courtier sounds fairly miserable from a modern perspective (and based on their writings, at least some of these folks thought so too): always surrounded by other people, and if you were a woman, you wore incredibly restrictive clothing and took hours getting ready for an event. Though the maids of honor also got to raise quite a ruckus without anyone seeming to care much about their behavior. If you were married to someone in the line of succession though, you were expected to give birth before an audience of high-ranking men.

I did wish Worsley’s writing about the rules of court was more comprehensive. For instance, she mentions that no one was allowed to leave the king’s presence without his permission, which led to one unfortunate lady-in-waiting peeing all over the floor. To which my question is: how did the system normally work to keep this from happening all the time? Did the king spend tons of time granting people permissions to leave? Or was it understood when you attended an event that you had to wait for the king to leave first? Did this rule apply even in the crowded drawing-room gatherings, large enough to attract gate-crashers as well as actual courtiers? Did people dash out whenever the king himself left to use the toilet? Or did they all go around a bit dehydrated to ensure they wouldn’t have to? Or maybe the whole thing was more of an etiquette suggestion that this one lady took way too seriously? Maybe Worsley can’t explain further because no one wrote it down. But the book definitely left me curious about how the practices we see in the narrative worked in other contexts.

At any rate, this is entertaining history, gossipy without being frivolous, and I definitely learned a lot about the Hanovers from it (not having known anything about them previously). Worth reading for those interested in royal history.

Soulstealers by Philip Kuhn

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 - Philip A. Kuhn

I'm sorry to say that this one turned out to be too dry for me; it's very much an academic history, though it certainly contains some interesting facts. I was particularly struck by the fact that in 18th century China, if a man wore his hair in a way other than the tonsure and queue prescribed by the Manchu rulers, not only could he be punished, but so could his landlord and neighbors - presumably for not having brought him into line themselves. We tend to talk about Asian societies as being "collectivist" but I hadn't before encountered a concrete example of this being ingrained in law, so that letting one's neighbors alone to mind their business could be quite a dangerous choice. Also, readers should be prepared for descriptions of judicial torture in open court - yikes.

 

I made it to around page 80.

Behind the Throne by Adrian Tinniswood

Behind the Throne - Adrian Tinniswood

This is a mildly interesting but overall unremarkable book, with a title that doesn’t quite describe its content. While the book is billed as covering the workings of the British royal household over several centuries – from Elizabeth I to II – it seems to spend more time on the personal lives of the monarchs and royal families themselves. Also, the narrative seems to be determined by just whatever information is most available about each reign, which means it doesn’t trace consistent subjects through time. I did find the stories included interesting, but I also came in not knowing much about the history of the British royal family. There’s some interesting stuff about the workings of the household too, though I think this book is best read for general interest rather than any kind of focused research purposes. The writing style is smooth and it makes for easy reading.

It got a bit weird at the end when the author started sneering about the unwashed masses daring to sully the royals with interest in and opinions about their personal lives, with particular venom for those former staff who wrote memoirs describing the royals’ personal lives. He then quotes those very memoirs for basically all of the information he provides about Elizabeth II and her family – which, she gave him some kind of award so best be careful I guess. And he conveniently ignores that this book itself is basically 450 years of gossip about the royals and those around them. Seems a little hypocritical to condemn the very interest that produces your own book sales.

For those interested in this sort of thing, I found The Courtiers better; it has a stronger narrative because it’s more focused on a particular time period (George I and II), and there’s a little more focus on the people around the royals than on the royals themselves. There are definitely a bunch of interesting tidbits and anecdotes in this one too, but Behind the Throne doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.