Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki (2015)

I got my copy of The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki (2015), a historical fiction / romance novel, at a librarian book exchange from a fellow archivist who said she got it as a gift but would never read it. Honestly, half of me wishes I had just let this one go, but I started it, I finished it, and now I'm writing about it.

To be fair, I have really enjoyed some historical romance in the past, particularly when it involves royalty, and this story of a scrappy Bavarian duchess turned Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seemed like it could be a good fit. The book itself is pretty predictable and not bad enough to be a fun bad read or good enough to be a fun good read. The life of Elizabeth (known to her admirers as Sisi), however, is fascinating. Take a minute to check out her Wikipedia page. She's got some excellent mother-in-law tension, a doomed romance, a son who died in a crazy murder-suicide pact, a wild beauty routine, an independent life as a traveler, and then was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in Geneva who wanted to kill the next royal personage he saw. Plus her life overlapped with the invention of photography so we have tons of kick ass photographs of her and her beloved hair.

This particular book just goes through the first part of Elizabeth's life, through the couple's coronation in Hungary, and Pataki has already published a second book in the Sisi series that delves into more of her interesting life. (And if that name sounds familiar, Allison Pataki is indeed the daughter of George Pataki, former New York governor and ex-Republican potential presidential candidate.)

On the plus side, the descriptions of court life in Vienna and the Hungarian countryside are very well done, and the book has a nice structure that helps to give the story a little bit of a life. I mostly read this one in airports and on airplanes, and it was just about the perfect thing for that kind of reading experience (except when I ended up sitting next to a woman who had THREE royal historical romances in her carry on bag and then wanted to talk to me about how great the historical romance genre is for half of our flight).

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir (1992)

I love me some English royal history, and Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower (1992) definitely scratches that itch.

Weir sets out to review all the available evidence on the fate of the two Yorkist prices (Edward V and his brother, Richard) who went into the Tower of London during the rule of their uncle, Richard III, and were never seen again. Weir is staunchly in the "Richard did it" camp and deftly brings together centuries of documentation, interpretation, and research to bolster her claim. She also brings in some pretty sharp (and sometimes smirky) counter-arguments to those in the "Richard is innocent" camp (a centuries-long tradition).

I liked that she didn't go 100% Shakespeare and claim that Richard was evil or necessarily more scheming than anyone else -- she puts his decisions and actions in a context that makes a lot of sense for the man and his times. The book ends with a fascinating look at the archaeological evidence gathered when the bones of two young boys were found in a trunk buried under a staircase in the Tower during the reign of Charles II (about 200 years after their deaths), as well as a scientific study of those bones done in the 1930s. There is something very CSI: Medieval England about some of this (in a good way!) and Weir makes the history and connections understandable for a non-expert without seeming to dumb anything down.

I'd be curious to see how Weir would integrate the 2012 discovery of Richard's skeleton and subsequent testing and reburial, but a cursory google search didn't turn up any reaction from her to the project. It did, however, turn up this article with a truly excellent headline.

This is a readable and straightforward book about a key moment in British royal history that led to the end of the Yorks and the the rise of the Tudors. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Images of America: Nebraska City by Tammy Partsch (2015)

As an archivist, I'm a fan of Arcadia Press and their local history publications -- always heavy on photographs and focused on a niche location or topic, they do just what they intend and also spread the love of archival photographs (AND they were also a sponsor of the Austin Archives Bazaar, so they deserve lots of love!).

As a Nebraskan, I'm also a fan of Nebraska City, where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived for many years. Put those two loves together, and I'm the natural market for Images of America: Nebraska City by Tammy Partsch (2015). My aunt picked this up when she was back in Nebraska City for a reunion and I'm so glad she did. Having grown up with frequent visits to the city, I never really knew much about its history and, as one of the oldest cities in Nebraska, its history is very rich.

Partsch divides the photographs in the book up by topic, with big sections focusing on the Morton family / Arbor Lodge, as well as the local orchards and the legacy of firefighting in the town.

While the topic may be a little narrow for the general reader, if you have any attachment to Nebraska, Arbor Day, or the settlement of early towns in the west, this is a worthwhile read.

I may be a little biased, but my favorite picture in the book was this group of kindergartners from 1956 in the "Daily Life" section, since it also happens to feature my grandmother, Lilly Sorensen. Love you Bemor!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016)

The Society of American Archivists is running a One Book, One Profession nationwide book club this fall, and their selection is Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016). A group of Austin-area archivists decided to read the book and get together during October (which just happens to be Archives Month!) to discuss it. I'm really glad I jumped on board with this event because this is a book that I might not have ordinarily read, and I'm glad I had a chance to check it out.

The book consists of three independently-written modules, which move generally from the more theoretical to the more practical: "Contextualizing Archival Literacy" by Elizabeth Yakel and Doris Malkmus; "Teaching With Archives - A Guide for Archivists, Librarians, and Educators" by Sammie L. Morris, Tamar Chute, and Ellen Swain; "Connecting Students and Primary Sources - Cases and Examples" by Tamar Chute, Ellen Swain, and Sammie L. Morris. Sammie is a friend of mine and I was so excited to see that she contributed to two of the three modules in the book, building on the articles I'd read about her research in identifying core skills in using archives for history students.

I found all three modules to be applicable to my work as an archivist, even though I don't do that much traditional teaching in a day-to-day context. I do spend some time every semester doing more formal library instruction, which sometimes involves the archives, and I also do a lot of one-on-one archival instruction and advocacy, both with students and faculty (and members of the general public). The pedagogical framework as well as the concrete case studies and sample activities all help to put this important and often ignored work more to the front of what archivists do. While some of the teaching scenarios were way more involved than I'd ever see as a lone arranger in a small school, reading about the successes and mis-steps in these case studies will help me with my own smaller teaching experiments.

Certainly not a light read or something that everyone is going to want to pick up, but if you are an archivist, an historian, or a teacher of any subject, I think there's a lot to dig into here. Nice work, archivists!

Saturday, October 01, 2016

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories by Luke Mogelson (2016)

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more. what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

e.e. cummings

The title of Luke Mogelson's debut short story collection, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016) comes from e.e. cummings' poem "next to of course god america i," and the irony in both works is that the experience of these veterans is often merely symbolic to those on the home front and very rarely heroic or happy to the ones experiencing it. In Mogelson's stories of servicemen at war and back at home, even if you aren't one of the dead, the impact of your service is tough to wrap around a civilian lifestyle.

These stories are well crafted with a pleasing diversity of structures and topics, while maintaining a constant focus on character, tight observations, and a good sense of dialogue. Small threads connect the stories in the book, making the collection tie together nicely as a discrete work, but without being too gimmicky or novelistic. While the characters and focus are overwhelmingly male, these are not overly-masculine stories and Mogelson gives us a lot more than the (sadly true) but overly familiar post-combat cliches. These are short stories that take every advantage of the form, and if you are a short story fan, this one is going to be a treat.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Strange Ritual: Pictures and Words by David Byrne (1995)

My latest selection from the St. Denis bookshelf in exile, Strange Ritual: Pictures and Words by David Byrne (1995) is a photography and essay collection featuring some pretty wonderful (and sometimes incongruous) pictures Byrne took while traveling the world making music in the 1980s and 1990s.

The photographs include series of devotional objects, street scenes, mass produced advertisements and consumer products, and (one of my favorite) odd book titles that Byrne has collected. Sometimes the images are presented alone and without comment, other times images are collaged together, juxtaposed, or exposed on top of each other. Brief remarks or captions may run down the bottom or through the center of the page, while longer essays are printed alone, between sets of photographs. All the photos are satisfyingly provided with captions at the end of the book.

 In one of my favorite of his short essays, a rumination on the difference between what other people think we are feeling and what are actually feeling runs along the bottom of a series of pictures of defaced Bollywood posters (also pictured on the cover). Byrne describes people as puppeteers with broken marionettes who are trying to adjust the strings and levers that control our tone of voice and facial expressions to make them match what we want to express, but never being able to really make what we mean and what other people understand match up.

As you may imagine, David Byrne has a wonderful eye for detail, color, and humor and his collection of photography is really fun to flip through. The themes that run through the book hold the disparate series of images together and the variety keeps it from getting boring. This is one I could see coming back to again and again.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Abductors by Stuart Cloete (1966)

I grabbed my copy of The Abductors by Stuart Cloete (1966) from a friend's garage sale six years ago and then let it mellow on the shelf for awhile before digging in. The pulpy cover and salacious description ("Once a girl is a whore, my dear, there's no going back") looked fun, but the book itself is actually quite long (479 pages, with tiny type) and includes an educational appendix on Cloete's research into the continued problem of women being tricked or sold into prostitution. Which, you know, hasn't really gotten much better since the 1880s, when this book is set, or the 1960s, when it was written.

Lavinia Lenton is a wealthy, sheltered, mother of two in Victorian England. Her husband, Edward, tells her that their governess, Ellen, came on to him in the hallway and needs to be fired and sent to London right away, but that they shouldn't tell her father or anyone else why or where she went. Lavinia, used to doing what her husband says, goes along with it and Ellen arrives in London on the last train of the night with no references and nowhere to go. She is met by a kindly older woman who was expecting a young woman to come help with her grandchildren, but that woman didn't show up. She quickly sweeps Ellen up and deposits her in a nicely decorated apartment in town. Then Ellen notices that there are no door knobs on the inside of the doors, and there are bars in the windows. She's been trapped in a whorehouse and there's nothing she can do to get out.

To make it worse, the whole abduction was planned by her former employer, Edward Lenton, who, contrary to his story to Lavinia, tried to assault Ellen in the hallway and got mad when she fought back and refused to meet him in his bedroom. He wrote to his old friend Mrs. Caramine, the madame of one of the finest whorehouses in London, to arrange for her abduction and to keep her trapped until he could come for her. Edward is really really really not a nice guy.

Mrs. Caramine, who gets a lot of rich backstory, has her reasons for wanting revenge on Edward and suggests to him that he hire a French governess for his two girls, one that she will select. The beautiful Delphine is able to make herself look quite plain and trick Lavinia into thinking she isn't a threat, while she sleeps with Edward and, ultimately, kidnaps the two young Lenton girls and takes them to France to enter the sex trade.

All this is too much for sheltered Lavinia who has a huge wake up call about her husband and starts fighting back. With the help of a handsome local lawyer (and childhood friend), she blackmails her husband into letting her do what she wants, finds where Ellen has been held and arranges for her release, and tracks down her daughters. As the novel progresses, things get more complicated and interconnected and Lavinia shocks wealthy society by throwing her name behind a reform group that is trying to raise the age of consent in England and provide some protection for children and young women who are tricked, kidnapped, or sold by their families.

While the combination of a titillating plot and an educational backbone don't always work well together, the author balances the two well and also throws in some excellent characterization, observant description, and clever twists. Stuart Cloete (1897-1976) was a well-respected and popular South African author who was active from the 1930s until his death in the mid-1970s. While he also wrote some "after the bomb," post-apocalyptic books, The Abductors seems to be his most pulpy title, and most of that is in the marketing.

This is a fun book to read and is much zippier than its length and appendices and works cited lists would make you think. I could have done with a few less rich dudes comparing women to horses and sometimes Lavinia's awakening to equal rights and sexual pleasure is a little hamfisted, but that's easy to forgive in a novel with so much unexpected depth and character. Worth picking up at a garage sale near you!