Review Roundup

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

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A young American discovers he may be heir to the unclaimed estate of an English World War I officer, which launches him on a quest across Europe to uncover the elusive truth. In a breathless race from London archives to Somme battlefields to the Eastfjords of Iceland, Tristan pieces together the story of a forbidden affair set against the tumult of the First World War and the pioneer British expeditions to Mt. Everest. (from Goodreads)

Okay - with all due respect to the author - I thought this book was terrible. It hit every one of my reading pet peeves - from a dull current-day story to an unresolved story in the historical timeline to pretentious writing and a wandering focus. I kept reading and reading thinking that the story had to be going somewhere. There had to be a development or a twist or something other than the plot line that was obvious from the start. I kept on reading hoping for a vivid depiction of WWI battlefields or Everest expeditions in the 1920s - no such luck. Instead, I had to slog through chapters of a present-day story about an aimless young man wandering around Europe. At some points, the book literally gets into the details of booking flights and trains around Europe - seemingly for no other purpose than recreating the "experience" of young people backpacking across Europe. Then - in the ultimate cop-out of a writer who thinks they are being "serious" - one of the major story lines is not resolved. This was a total waste of time.

For far too many otherwise historically savvy people today, the story of the Byzantine civilization is something of a void. Yet for more than a millennium, Byzantium reigned as the glittering seat of Christian civilization. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages, Byzantium held fast against Muslim expansion, keeping Christianity alive. Lost to the West is replete with stories of assassination, mass mutilation and execution, sexual scheming, ruthless grasping for power, and clashing armies that soaked battlefields with the blood of slain warriors numbering in the tens of thousands. (from Goodreads) 

Back in February, I saw an exhibit of Byzantine art at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. I immediately went to the library looking for an overview/introductory book to the Byzantine empire: this book was exactly what I was looking to read. Starting from the time of Constantine the Great, each chapter covers an era or reign in Byzantine history leading up to 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered what remained of the empire. Bronsworth does a brilliant job of injecting humor and humanity into these long ago events and keeps all of the names and battles under control so that everything flows together into one compelling narrative. If - like me - you've always been interested in the Byzantine empire but didn't know where to start, take a look at this engaging popular history.

For anyone who has ever loved a Jane Austen novel, a warm and witty look at the passionate, thriving world of Austen fandom. They walk among us in their bonnets and Empire-waist gowns, clutching their souvenir tote bags and battered paperbacks: the Janeites, Jane Austen’s legion of devoted fans. Who are these obsessed admirers, whose passion has transformed Austen from classic novelist to pop-culture phenomenon? Deborah Yaffe, journalist and Janeite, sets out to answer this question, exploring the remarkable endurance of Austen’s stories, the unusual zeal that their author inspires, and the striking cross-section of lives she has touched (from Goodreads)

I would approach this book as a collection of fun profiles of Jane Austen afficiandos rather than a comprehensive or perceptive overview of the phenomenon. The storyline tying the whole thing together focuses on the author's first attempt to design and wear a Regency-era gown. This is cute at first but gets a little tiresome and is clearly there to help stretch out this 200-page book. Still, I appreciated her compassion for her interview subjects and her ability to see Jane Austen fandom as an opportunity for people to express themselves in a world that often does reward deep-rooted passions.

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