Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden

25817092Book – Every once in a while, a book picked up on a whim can be surprising in wonderful ways.  That was my reaction to Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World.  I was expecting a conventional history of precious stones and jewelry.  I got both less and more than that, and wasn’t at all disappointed in the exchange.

Stoned is to traditional, chronological histories as a volume of short stories is to a novel.  Chapters jump around in time, but each is a fascinating and complete slice of history in its own right.  Chapter subjects are chosen not only to entertain and inform, but used to explore the larger question why human beings value what we value, becoming far less  mineralogical or artistic than social and psychological history.  For example, the first chapter explores the popular myth that the Dutch purchase of New Amsterdam (later New York) was somehow a swindle because Venetian beads were used as currency, pointing out that glass beads were, at the time, a rare and precious commodity with a globally recognized worth.  We wouldn’t balk today at someone purchasing land rights with a sackful of diamonds–why do we respect one variety of shiny bauble but look down on past peoples for prizing another?  And what’s going on in our brains that makes us value gems in the first place?

Author Raden does a great job choosing subjects that are both interesting and significant, from the pearl that changed Tudor history to the role of Faberge eggs in the Russian Revolution to the conquistadors’ emeralds to how cultured pearls helped Japan become a world power.  Her voice is entertaining and pacing is brisk, making Stoned a quick and fascinating read.  It’s perfect for anyone who loves popular and casual histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

We Believe the Children by Richard Beck

41hLd81ByvL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Book – In the mid-1980s, dozens of childcare providers were tried, and some convicted and imprisoned, for sexual abuse of children on an unprecedented scale. While in some cases abuse really occurred, the charges were massively inflated, the product of accusations made by children who had been through hours and hours of aggressive interrogation and “therapy” designed to help them recover memories they had suppressed. Into the 90s, adult women were coming forward with allegations of abuse, often connected to Satanic cults, that they had not known about before the memories had been “recovered” in therapy. And by the year 2000, almost all of the charges and convictions resulting from these kinds of allegations had been dropped or rescinded.

Beck does more describing the situation than explaining it in his book, covering the groundbreaking McMartin trial (one of the longest and most expensive in American history) in great detail, but also drawing connections with other, similar cases going on around the country. Beck puts the whole thing down to a growing cultural discomfort with the disintegration of the nuclear family and the development of new therapeutic techniques that turned out to be more damaging than helpful.

The McMartin case broke six months before I was born, but I remember reading about it as a teenager in connection with the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who were convicted as part of the “Satanic panic” and only released in 2011. I’ve always been amazed – and a little scared – at how huge the whole thing got before anyone was willing to step up and say, This is ridiculous, this cannot possibly be real. The destruction of one accused family is chronicled in Andrew Jaerecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which Beck mentions in the book.

All the Time in the World: A Book of Hours by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins

timeBook – Books of Hours are the most common book we have from medieval history – beautiful, elaborate manuscripts created for one (very wealthy) person, providing them with a list of holidays throughout the year and prayers throughout the day. Inspired by this format, Jenkins has created a kind of uber-trivia book, a collection of small historical stories and interesting bits of information that match up with the hours of the day and the months of the year.

The cherry-blossom festivals of Japan, duelists who dreaded getting up in the morning more than the upcoming duel, writers’ personal schedules and national holidays, recipes and recommendations (including a recipe for Nostradamus’s aphrodesiac jam, and a recommendation not to try it), historical snapshots of Renaissance Florence, 1930s Shanghai, and desserts that you set on fire before serving – this book has a little bit of everything. More in-depth than a usual trivia book, but without a wholly defining theme, other than the passage of time, I found this perfectly wonderful for curling up on a rainy day with a cup of tea.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

61vo1zbYYpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – After her call-out in Jen’s Hamilton review for the also-excellent Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, I thought it was high time that Sarah Vowell had a blog post all to herself.  And now that I’ve made it through one whole sentence and have lulled you into a false sense of security, there’s half-a-chance you won’t instantly click away when I try to convince you that you might have fun with a book about the Puritans.

No, wait–really, though!  I wouldn’t have believed it myself before The Wordy Shipmates, but the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony can (and in this case does) read as the tale of a group of quirky, infighting, self-important but also idealistic world-travelers who were, paradoxically, equal parts ruggedly individualist and staunchly authoritarian.  In fact, Vowell’s whole point is that our mental image of stern, humorless old men and women in weird buckled hats ignores the fact that the earliest European settlers in America were actually, y’know, people.  They had foibles and feuds and personalities that most histories tend to bury under a sea of brown homespun, but which Vowell makes it her mission to bring to light.  What I love about all of Vowell’s history books–but something which may or may not be your cup of tea, so fair warning–is the casual and personal tone of her writing.  She is not a detached historian writing from a distance; she is a character in her own story, discussing American history as it relates to herself in the present and thereby, I think, making it relatable for her readers too.  She is funny and personable, and learning history from her is like hearing it from a friend.

Just in case I’ve convinced you to give it a try, you should know that in addition to the paper book, you can borrow The Wordy Shipmates as an e-book or an audiobook on CD.

Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Book – Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children is a lively and imaginative tale that follows a young lad named Jacob.  Jacob has grown up hearing the most fantastical stories of children with magical capabilities from his grandfather.  An Invisible boy.  A girl who holds fire in her hands.  Children who, Jacob thinks, couldn’t possibly have existed.  After the sudden passing of his beloved grandfather, Jacob becomes obsessed with the photos and stories they shared.  The tragedy sends Jacob and his father far away to escape their grief.  And that…is where the adventure really begins. While exploring the island, Jacob discovers the old ruins of an orphanage, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Jacob soon discovers that all the stories his grandfather told him might actually be true, as the children of Miss Peregrine’s Home come to life.  Yet there are still questions left unanswered. 

For anyone who has ever been awed by circus performers, amazed by people who can do unbelievable feats, pick up this book and take a gander. The story itself is charming, but it is the unique photographs sprinkled throughout the pages that really breathe life into the novel.  It’s almost enough to make you believe that the characters are real people, each with their own history.  Ransom takes these images from his extensive collection of vintage photographs to illustrate the novel; what a brilliant idea!

If you find yourself nearing the end of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, fear not, for the trilogy continues with Hollow City, and the newest installment, Library of Souls.  Also in the works to become a motion picture, don’t miss the premiere of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in March of 2016. And for another visual adaption of the book, be sure to check out the graphic novel adaptation.

The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters

the-cure-for-dreaming-cat-wintersBook – Cat Winters weaves a tale to delight readers with her latest novel, The Cure For Dreaming.  Without even taking a peek into the pages of this book, the cover art alone sparked my curiosity immediately.  The dust jacket depicts a woman laying on her back, levitating above a chair, with spiraling rings overlaying the image.  Quite hypnotizing, you might say.  A perfect scene to preview the story that lies within.

The setting is Oregon; the time is 1900.  Olivia Mead is an independent and strong-willed young woman, fighting the patriarchy as a suffragist, much to her father’s dismay.  He would rather have a quiet, submissive daughter, someone to be seen and not heard.  But it seems Olivia’s rebellious streak will not be tamed…until hypnotist Henri Reverie comes to town and starts stirring things up.  Detecting an opportunity, Olivia’s father hires the young illusionist to prevent his daughter from speaking her mind, to suppress her fight for women’s rights.

Much to Olivia’s surprise, Henri has actually given her the ability to see people for what they truly are, yet without the ability to speak a word of her visions as she begins to see people manifested as good or evil.  Overwhelmed by the nightmarish sights around her, Olivia is more determined than ever to make her words known.

Cat Winters blends history with fantasy, entwining feminism and mystifying illusion to create a story that will charm readers of all ages.

 

Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch

becoming shakespeareBook – At the turn of the seventeenth century, Will Shakespeare was one of a number of popular playwrights, hacking out a living in London’s theaters and competing for patrons, but he wasn’t considered the very best. What happened, then, to turn this one early modern writer into The Bard, the greatest genius of English literature?

I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since I got out of high school and had a chance to read and see the plays for fun instead of for the test, but Lynch offers an entirely new perspective. Shakespeare’s exalted position, he argues, is as much an accident of history as anything; there were plenty of other writers not only of Shakespeare’s time but of many others who could have taken the same place, but didn’t. He traces the history of Shakespeare’s afterlife through the Restoration (when plays written for the last kings of England were brought back to the stage following the English Civil War) and the following centuries where, it seemed, Shakespeare just kept getting more famous for being famous. It didn’t hurt that he was also a great writer, but that definitely wasn’t all that was going on.

This would be a fun book for anyone interested in English history, the nature of fame, and of course for anyone who’s ever seen a Shakespeare play and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

harkBookCalvin and Hobbes meets A Short History of Nearly Everything in this hilariously quirky anthology from webcomic artist Kate Beaton.  Beaton’s comics draw their themes heavily from history and literature, with subjects ranging from Sherlock Holmes (and the Case of the Two Watsons) to the French Revolution (traitor baby!) to St. Francis of Assisi (the birds are his brothers).  While that may not sound like a recipe for comedic brilliance, Beaton has a keen eye for history’s absurdities and a playful sense of humor that has spawned many an internet meme.  Her art style–charmingly boneless and wide-eyed people abound–is instantly recognizable and easy to love.

Fortunately for those of us who may not be as well-informed on Canadian History, Ancient Rome or the Bronte Sisters as Beaton herself, she provides brief notes along with most strips that offer background knowledge and further information (and the occasional wisecrack).  Between these and the comics themselves, it’s easy to come for the humor and learn a little something by accident.  As a bonus, parents who fall under the spell of Hark! A Vagrant can look forward to Beaton’s first picture book, The Princess and the Pony, due to arrive at the end of June.  And, of course, fans can always find more Hark! A Vagrant at http://www.harkavagrant.com/.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, and The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Books – With the centennial of WWI upon us and that of the Russian Revolution soon to come, the last imperial family of Russia has been a popular subject recently.  Two important histories were published in 2014.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, a book for adult readers, is an intimate and personal family history that accomplishes the difficult task of making its royal subjects individual and relatable.  As the title suggests, its highlight is the degree to which it addresses with the four Romanov grand duchesses–Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia–as unique personalities, avoiding the tendency of onlookers (during their lifetimes and since) to lump them together into one unit.  The treatment of the family, its personalities and their actions, is neither sentimental nor condemnatory, providing a detached authorial perspective that allows readers to make up their own minds.

The Family RomanovThe Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, intended for teen audiences and up, distinguishes itself from The Romanov Sisters by the strength of its narrative thread and breadth of its scope.  Rather than limiting itself to the Romanovs, The Family Romanov features a series of “Beyond the Palace Gates” sections that describe broader events in Russia and the world.  Even for older readers who may have some familiarity with the history of the period, this context is a thoughtful addition that enriches the story.  Fleming is also adept at exploiting the inherent tension of her tragic subject to keep readers on edge and eager to continue.  That said, Fleming has much more of an authorial agenda than Rappaport.  Readers of The Family Romanov will emerge with a very clear sense of her opinions and point of view (not necessarily either a good or bad thing).

Both books are well-written, deeply researched and engaging; I would have no hesitation in recommending either one.  If I were forced to choose between them, however, my verdict would come down in favor of The Family Romanov, whether for adult, tween or teen readers.  It is more readable and memorable, and the added background into the lives of everyday Russians and famous historical figures outside the royal family adds an extra layer of depth.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

lost cityBook – Touted as a real-life Indiana Jones story, The Lost City of Z tells the adventures of Percy Fawcett. The last of the ‘amateur’ adventurers, Colonel Fawcett helped explore the Amazon and was instrumental in mapping the borders of Brazil and Argentina at the request of the Royal Geographic Society. He is most well-known for his exhaustive search for the ‘Lost City of Z,’ a city that he was convinced existed in the depths of the Amazon jungle. His expedition disappeared in 1925 and no verified account of what actually did happen exists. At least one hundred people have died in search of both the city and the fate of Fawcett’s party.

In addition to the story of what happened in Fawcett’s life, The Lost City of Z also tells the story of a writer in search of a story and how easily you can get caught up in a legend. David Grann undertook a trek of his own into the false paradise that is the Amazonian jungle and came out with a new understanding of what it meant to be an explorer in the golden era.

This book was a fascinating look at the Amazon through the eyes of anthropologists, archaeologists, and adventurers. The mystery still lingers and this book made me research so many things. I still want to know more about the events that led to the disappearance of Fawcett’s party and the subsequent discoveries made. This will be hours and hours of interesting reads.

I listened to this book and while the narrator had a dry almost monotone style, it worked for the topic.