Posts Tagged ‘history’

Archer Action

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell; page count 451

I just breezed through this book, but then it was exactly what I wanted to read, exactly when I wanted to read it. I had just seen Olivier’s Henry V on DVD (talk about melodramatic!) and I wanted to read an action-centered historical fiction. So this title really hit the mark. (hehehe! I just had to indulge in some archer humor somewhere in this post.)

The story follows a young man, Nicolas Hook, as he goes from beloved bastard to outlaw and then archer. He ends up taking part in one of the most famous battles in Britain’s history.

Even though I really liked this book, I’m not going to pretend it is spectacular literature or without flaws. Cornwell for no discernible reason has a pair of saints talk to and warn Hook away from danger sporadically  throughout his adventures. I found this to be unnecessary and distracting. He writes the final battle sequence from several characters’ viewpoints, but he has up until that point only really followed Hook. It would have been better if the other characters were followed prior to Agincourt.

Generally, I did enjoy the book. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wanted more action in historical fiction. Although, fair warning, some of the writing did get a bit bloody. I may even in future pick up another of Cornwell’s books.

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Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre; page count 360

This non-fiction work tells about a British espionage network, the Double Cross Team or XX or Twenty Team (the roman numerals for double Xs) during World War II. (I will never look at one of my favorite beers the same again.) This team worked on capturing Nazi spies in Britain and turning them to work for the Allies.

double cross macintyreIt follows five of the main spies who made the landing at Normandy not a total bloodbath and disaster. The first is Dusan Popov or Agent Tricycle, a playboy and entrepreneur with several contacts in Germany. Then there is Juan Pujol Garcia or Agent Garbo, a Spaniard with an excellent imagination who developed his own network consisting of dozens of fictitious sub-agents. There is also Lily Sergeyev or Agent Treasure, a White Russian former aristocrat and fanatical dog lover. Roman Czerniawski or Agent Brutus was a Polish freedom fighter then French resistance leader, who when arrested by Nazis in France convinced his captors he would become a spy only to turn against them for the Allies. And last but not least we have the gambling, bi-sexual socialite Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, Agent Bronx. You also learn a great deal about the British men and women (alright, just one woman) who run the agents, as well as some of the side agents and subplots.

I really liked this book. Granted it has everything I like in a book: daring deeds, espionage, far away destinations and life hanging in the balance. However, Macintyre’s writing style is particularly pleasing. He did not burned with footnotes (don’t worry they are at the end for the more studious readers.)He also has this brilliant English dry humor running throughout the book which makes the sometimes amusing scenarios very funny.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a lighter take on Word War II, or to anyone with an interest in true espionage stories. Honestly, I don’t think this book would disappoint anyone who happened to pick it up.

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To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl & Carol MacD. Wallace; page count 416

Bristol. Tyntesfield Manor

Tyntesfield Manor in Bristol, UK

Really? Do you want more of a review than the title of this post? Yes? Alright then.

This book gained fame by being the inspiration for Cora, Countess of Grantham from the hit TV series Downton Abbey. I am only surprised it was not more popular before the show. This book is awesome!

The book tells the various stories of wealthy American heiresses who traveled across the Atlantic in order to find a husband with a British title. The first women to cross the pond did so because they were not accepted by the stuck up and slightly puritanical dowagers of New York society. Soon, however, the sport of catching a “peer” became fashionable.

Besides being both humorous and fact-filled, this book dishes the dirt on the scintillating scandalous details of the mid- to late-nineteenth century upper crust. Plus, it’s fully illustrated! I just love that this book is page after page of lovely photos.

I gave a copy as a gift to our very own Sapphire, and much to my joy and surprise received a copy myself! (Don’t tell Sapphire, but I considered keeping her copy for myself since I wanted to read it.) I do highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy Downton Abbey or you like reading about historical socialites. If you are a celebrity magazine fan and normally do not read “heavy” books, this would be your best dip in the rewarding world of non-fiction.

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Fall of Giants by Ken Follet; page count 985.

Triumphant dog sitting atop a gun surrounded by gunners, France, during World War I

Couldn’t resist a puppy picture. This fellow was a regimental mascot in France, from the National Library of Scotland.

This book was fantastic! I cannot say enough good things about this. Ken Follet has certainly earned his widespread acclaim.

This first book of the Century Trilogy follows five very different families from 1911 through 1924. The Welsh coal mining family: Williams, the English aristocrats: Fitzherberts, the German aristocrats: von Ulrichs, the Russian factory workers: Peshkovs, and the old-monied American family: the Dewars. These families struggle through the heart-wrenching events of everyday life and truly horrific historic events.

I particularly enjoyed all the different vantage points. It’s far too easy to be ethnocentric about historical events. All too often we are only presented with one side of events, even in history books. However, Follet shows the views of nearly every facet leading up to World War I and after. He delves into the reasons it began and the honest, albeit misguided, opinions of those in charge who lead their countries to the brink of destruction (or past depending on one’s point of view.) I was especially pleased that he didn’t just show the upper crust or just the down-trodden workers, but both and how they interact.

I highly recommend this book. I’m going to take a bit of a break before reading the next edition of the trilogy, Winter of the World, but I’m already intrigued by how these families will react to the next phase in history.

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Memorial Day

Although now known mostly as a three-day weekend to Bar-b-que and chance to buy big-ticket items on sale, Memorial Day originally had much more serious origins.

After the start of the American Civil War, commuities would set aside one day a year to decorate their fallen soldiers’ graves. On this day, which could be randon, townspeopl would gather to remember and honor those who fought for their country; which at the time, of course, could have been either the Union or Confederate States of America since both the North and the South engaged in this practice.
Confederate  Memorial Day parade on Main Street: Wauchula, Florida
On May 30, 1868, Decoration Day (precurser to Memorial Day) was officially observed. It was proclaimed by General Jophn Logan to be a day to decorate the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. May 30 was chosen because it was not an anniversary of a particular battle. While the day was meant to commemorate both sides of the conflict, many Southern states honored their dead on other days.

It was not until World War I that Decoration Day morphed into a day of rememberance for all fallen US servicemen (and later women.)

Memorial day was still celebrated on May 30th until 1971 when it was declared to be held on the last Monday in May in order to provide a better holiday for Federal employees.

If you get the chance, decorate the grave of a fallen soldier, hug a person in military service, or at least take a minute to remember those who gave their lives.

I found this information on the two following sites.



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Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel; page count 512.

Clan of the Cave Bear

I actually listened to the audio version, read by Sandra Burr. It was fantastic!

This book, the first in the Earth’s Children Series, was amazing! I can’t believe it took me so long to read it. This first book was originally published in 1980, and Auel finished the series last summer with the publication of the sixth and final book, The Land of the Painted Caves.

The story, the series in fact, follows Ayla, a prehistoric woman traversing through Europe about 30,000 years ago. Clan of the Cave Bear opens with an earthquake which destroys five-year-old Ayla’s home and her family. The child travels alone for a few days, encountering a cave lion along the way, before finally collapsing from exhaustion. She is picked up and rejuvenated by a neanderthal medicine woman traveling with her clan. The medicine woman is allowed to keep the girl even though Ayla is an “Other” (Homo sapien sapien.)

Auel breathes such life and depth into her characters. I love the differences she has created between “Others” and the Neanderthals. I was hooked from the moment I popped the CD in my car. Her landscapes are probably the most stunning thing. She makes it very easy to picture the surroundings. The crispness of the air, the color of the leaves. All of it is very well done.

The brilliance of Auel, however, isn’t in her writing style, which is certainly far above par; it’s in her research. It’s apparent the writer took a lot of time to research and get her facts straight. I appreciate any author who shows a reverence for facts, while making it accessible in fiction. Having read several previous books about human evolution, and watching numerous documentaries on the topic, I can say with some certainty that the history (prehistory?) quite accurate. (I mean, except for the obvious, albeit brief, dip into fantasy, but it’s so small and done so well, that I’ll overlook that bit.) Well, done, Auel!

Needless to say, I’ll definitely be reading the rest of this series. Although I may take a bit of a break in between installations for other books.


If you are interested in more about human evolution, I recommend these sites: http://humanorigins.si.edu/  and https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html

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in ol’ new york

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye; page count 411.

I love this book! I honestly don’t want to write too much about the plot because I don’t want to accidentally give the game away, so I will just sum-up only the first couple of chapters.

The Gods of Gotham

an awesome book you should read

1845, New York City. A young bartender, Timothy Wilde, leaves work with his head going ’round plans to marry a lady he is smitten with when a fire rampages through downtown Manhattan obliterating everything he owns. Suddenly finding himself with neither home nor job nor prospects, Wilde takes a job in the newly established New York Police Department monitoring the infamous Sixth Ward.

(The Sixth Ward encompassed most of the brothels, hovels and crime dens in New York City until after the Civil War. It was the location Five Points. Or for movie buffs, the setting for Gangs of New York.)

If that’s not enough to make you want to read this book, let me gush for a moment. The story is artfully crafted to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s incredibly well-written, sucking you into the grime of a nineteenth century metropolis. The characters are immensely lovable and realistic. Included is a bunch a newsboys so fantastic, I want to carry them around in my pocket. Faye’s attention to detail is just staggering.

Seriously, read this book. Read it if you like crime or mystery novels. Read it if you like historical novels. Read it if you like well-written characters. Read it if you like New York City. I promise you will not regret it.

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We normally do not write about movies here, but I had to share this documentary because it is brilliant! Prohibition: A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Prohibition Doc by Burns and NovickIn all fairness, I do have a soft spot for the 1910s-1920s. (I think I would have made an excellent spunky suffragette.) However, if you’re interested in American history, or just a well-made documentary, you should probably check this one out. I learned a lot about the era, and I really enjoyed all of the actual footage used.

Interesting tidbits among many that can be learned from the documentary:

After 1830, the average American over 15 years old drank almost seven gallons of pure alcohol a year! That comes to about three times as much as we drink today. Frankly, I don’t know how they functioned properly. If I drank three times the amount I drink now, I’d be completely useless.

The figures in terms of the economic consequences of Prohibition are staggering! In the state of New York, prior to Prohibition, nearly 75% of the state’s tax revenue came from taxes on liquor. Nationally, Prohibition cost the U.S. $11 billion in lost tax revenue. On top of which, it cost America another $300 million to enforce a practically unenforceable law.

I knew women played a large role in the Dry movement. With rampant alcohol abuse and the fact that spousal rape and abuse were not illegal, who can blame them? The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was quite a force. It’s still around, too. It is the oldest non-sectarian woman’s organization if the world. It also played a large role in women’s suffrage. What I did not know was there was another large, powerful woman’s group which was behind Repeal. The Woman’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform was founded by heiress and the first woman to serve on the Republican National Committee, Pauline Sabin.

Also, my new favorite historical figure is Lois Long the indelible flapper and writer for the New Yorker.


Watch Women in PROHIBITION Lois Long on PBS. See more from Ken Burns.

All of the facts (except maybe the bit about the WCTU which is on their website) can be found on the documentary or on the doc’s website: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/  You can basically watch all of it online, if that suits better.
A big thanks to PBS for funding such stellar productions.
Another big thanks to my pal, Brandon, for giving me the documentary as a Christmas present. I love it!

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Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fat Tuesday, whatever you want to call it, it’s a big event here in Louisiana. Growing up Catholic I knew Mardi Gras was the day before Lent officially begins. In other words, it’s a day to go hog-wild before the 47 days of denial and soberness of Lent. I had no idea Mardi Gras season officially starts the day after Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas) and culminates in Fat Tuesday.


In the United States, historians believe that the first Mardi Gras occurred on March 3, 1699 when French explorers landed in what is now Louisiana1. In years to come settlers celebrated the holiday with parties and balls, which Spanish control abolished when it took over New Orleans. Americans reinstated the revelries in 1812, when Louisiana became a U.S. State1.

a modern day parade


In 1857, the Mistick Krewe of Comus (a secret society of New Orleans business men) organized the first recorded parade1. Elements of this parade are still seen today—torches, marching bands and floats. Today, there are dozens of Krewes, each hosting a parade that rolls anytime in the season. This year, parades started February 4 and ended on February 21. In each parade, those on the floats wear masks covering their hair and faces, yet another old tradition. Back in the beginnings of the parades the wealthy wanted to keep their involvement a secret and wore masks to remain anonymous.


Another old Mardi Gras tradition is the King Cake3. I’d heard of King Cake before—in context of the 12 Days of Christmas—but never understood why King Cake was also associated with Mardi Gras. Until, of course, I realized that Mardi Gras officially begins on January 6, or the Twelfth Night of Christmas. The King Cake is baked in honor of the three kings. Inside each cake is a little baby, and who ever finds the baby gets good luck for the next year. Today’s bakers top their King Cakes with sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.

Click on the picture for a recipe


Unlike the rest of the Mardi Gras traditions, beads are relatively new2, although they are now synonymous with Mardi Gras. The throwing of beads did not come about until sometime in the 1920s when the Krewe of Rex parade threw inexpensive necklaces to the crowds2. Today’s krewes spend anywhere between $800 and $2,000 on beads and must have orders in by September2! The other Mardi Gras bead “tradition,” or flashing for beads, is also relatively new and only occurs in the French Quarter. The rest of the parades are relatively family friendly (if you ignore the rampant alcohol consumption).


While most Americans think associate New Orleans with Mardi Gras, other southern cities host their own celebrations. Brazil and Venice also host famous Carnival (Brazil) or Carnevale (Venice). Each celebration has its own distinctive, and historic flair, but each centers on the Roman Catholic tradition.

*TIME has some really cool pictures of Mardi Gras from the 1930s on their website. I wanted to include them, but I couldn’t insert them into this post. But check them out!


1. http://www.history.com/topics/mardi-gras

2. http://mardigrasday.com/mardigrasinfo.php?article_id=4

3. http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/kingcakes.html

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Groundhog Day

I come from a very strange family. For example: we have watched the movie Groundhog’s Day each year on Groundhog’s day until I moved out. (Technically my parents still do, but I no longer do.) If you’ve not seen the movie, Bill Murray’s character is stuck reliving the same day, Groundhog’s Day, over and over again. He can’t die; he can’t leave the town he’s stuck in; he cannot do anything but live out Groundhog’s Day until he gets it right. The fact that we watch this film every year without fail adds some special irony to the occasion.

However, I started to wonder, how did Groundhog Day begin? It is a rather odd superstition when you think about it. So, I did a little research.


Cute, yes?

There is a lot of adorable information about the Groundhog’s Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on the official site. There is information such as how long Punxsutawney Phil has been making his predictions: this is his 126th year officiating officially; in what language Phil makes his prediction: Groundhogese; and when the first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob was made: February 2nd, 1886. “The celebration of Groundhog Day began with Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers. They brought with them the legend of Candlemas Day.” Apparently there are several poems associated with Candlemas Day and the weather. All of them are a tiny bit different, but they all go something like this Scottish couplet:

“If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,

There’ll be twa (two) winters in a year.”

The celebration of Candlemas Day, and therefore Groundhog Day, is quite possiblly also aligned with the pagan holiday Imbolc, a celebration of the halfway point between Winter Solstice and the Spring equinox.

If you’re interested: Candlemas Day is a Catholic festival of sorts. There’s a lot of interesting religious jazz involved, but let me distill the whole thing a bit: Candlemas Day celebrates the day when Mary would have been cleansed from birthing a boy, and would have brought little baby Jesus into the Temple in Jerusalem to offer an animal sacrifice. There’s also a blessing of candles which takes place during the ceremony and a procession, too.

Supposedly, it’s the Germans who attached an animal to Candlemas. If it is sunny outside on Candlemas Day, then the hedgehog would see his shadow and therefore another winter (or another six weeks) came. Germans were the predominant settlers of Pennsylvania, and they replaced the hedgehog with the Groundhog. Ta da! A bizarre tradition is born!

That’s all good and well, but I don’t much care for cold myself. In fact, I’m a self-proclaimed wimp when it comes to cold. (Seriously, just ask Sapphire or Indigo. It would take me almost 150% longer to bundle for cold weather than either of them.) I’d really prefer it if some old woodchuck isn’t in charge of my comfort.

This year, Punxsutawney Phil has predicted six more weeks of winter. I must say, I’m not sure if I believe the little marmot. It already feels like spring where I am, and has for a couple of weeks now. Oh well. It’s still a fun tradition.

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