Marie’s Reading: “The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” by Dan Jones

templarsJones makes history so accessible and interesting, without sacrificing depth and scholarship.  His accounts are vivid and make great use of historical sources.  The Templars is about the order of the Templar Knights, including how the order was formed, their influence over the centuries, and the way they’ve been transformed into myth.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the Templars except that they existed.  The Knights Templar began as a group of knights dedicated to protecting Christians in Jerusalem, as well as the holy city itself.  They took vows of poverty and chastity, and lived lives similar to those of Cistercian monks.  However, they were also allowed to go into battle and to kill. In a very short period of time their power and money exploded.  When they finally fell out of favor, it was in spectacular and bloody fashion (short but not spoilered version: they ran afoul of the king of France, who did not trust the order…and was also in debt to them).

I have read several books about this era (about 1119 until about 1312), but always with a focus on England.  The Templars explains what was going on  in Jersualem and in Western Europe during the Crusades.  I especially enjoyed learning more about Spain and France during this period, and the capsule history of the city of Jerusalem was illuminating as well.  Again, after so many books from, say, Richard the Lionheart’s point of view, it was also fascinating to learn more about Saladin.

Jones finishes the book with a discussion of how pop culture has transformed the Knights Templar, and the way their legacy has shifted and turned to myth, which makes a nice bookend to the historical narrative.

If you enjoy narrative history and are interested in the Middle Ages, definitely try Jones’s work!  He also wrote the wonderful The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses.

–Marie

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Cayla’s Reading: “The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck

women in the castleI’m drawn to World War II fiction, particularly centered around women. Therefore, the premise of the widow of one of the men who plotted to assassinate Hitler gathering other Resistance widows in her family castle post-war was irresistible. After finishing, and pondering over this book for about a week, I am still of mixed emotions.

Marianne von Lingenfels is a formidable, complex character. She is passionately idealistic to the point of being unable to see the human complexities of the people she encounters. To Marianne, you are either a Nazi or you are not, there is no grey area. The other widows and children she manages to pluck out of the post-war DP camps are not quite as black and white. Fragile, romantic Benita burns with her own quiet strength, yearning for a life she’ll never have. Stoic Ania harbors secrets darker than anyone might imagine. Their children struggle for any resemblance of normal childhood after losing their fathers and living through the horrors of war.

The book starts in 1945 and then jumps forward to 1950, and then 1991, with several flashbacks to during and before the war. At first, I thought the author should have lingered in 1945 a bit longer. I was fascinated by life for the widows in the castle, learning to live with each other and find meaning in their new lives.

But as the book went on, I realized the book isn’t so much historical fiction as it is a study in psychology and how each person handles tragedy. The plot in itself doesn’t really matter. It was, of course, an interesting look at post-war Germany, a perspective we don’t often get in fiction. We got to see insight into how German society put itself back together after such a terrible and divisive war. But it really is about the characters. Some find purpose and passion in reconstructing Germany. Some struggle to adapt, some try to forget, and some are trapped in regret and pain and cannot move on at all.

We also got to see how each of the grown children handled their lives after the war. Some want nothing to do with their histories, some study it, and all struggle with relationships and connections. Seeing each character at each point in time was really a remarkable study in human psychology. The events in the book didn’t feel like a nicely arranged plot, either. I actually had to check if they were based in reality, they had that certain random quality that made me think it had to be partly true. It turns out, the only true part is the assassination plot against Hitler. But, Shattuck is half-German and based a lot of the emotional content on her grandparents’ experience during the war.

All in all, I think I liked it, but it isn’t an easy book to read or to digest!

–Cayla

Marie’s Reading: “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller

carolineIn Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller retells the story of Little House on the Prairie through the eyes of Ma Ingalls.

There’s so much lush and rich detail in this novel!  And there are layers to that amount of detail beyond set dressing and atmosphere: Caroline’s world, like the world of so many women, was all bound up in the physical realities of her home and the hard work she did to feed and clothe her family.  The amount of time spent on the little details and movements really puts you into this time and place, and the struggles of a woman on the frontier in the 1870’s.

At first I thought there wasn’t enough introspection, but as the novel went on I realized that Caroline was the type of woman who felt she didn’t need or have time for that kind of thing.  There are small moments, here and there, and it ends up being more than enough and incredibly insightful.

The story follows Little House on the Prairie more or less beat for beat, with some background filled in here and there.   This story is about when the Ingalls family left Wisconsin to stake a claim in Indian Territory.   Pa, Ma, Mary, and Laura (who was only three at the time and would be the one to grow up to write the Little House books) set off in a covered wagon for Kansas, and then try to set up their claim.  The pace is much slower and a lot more character-focused than Little House on the Prairie, which makes sense, as we’re getting this story from the adult perspective rather than a child’s.

I appreciated learning more about what Caroline Ingalls’ early life was like, and how the poverty and want of those years really affected her.  She has a serious issue with “selfishness”–she thinks of herself as incredibly selfish, for some reason, and always takes care to correct her daughters when she feels they aren’t being self-sacrificing enough.  It’s a trait that shows up in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books a lot, and here you wonder why Caroline is like this.  Was it her childhood that made her that way?  Or just one of those things?  Either way, it makes her feel three-dimensional.

As a kid, when I read the Little House books, I always found Ma way too strict and on the mean side.  But as an adult, I understand her a lot better.  Miller’s take on this woman, both from real-life sources and the character Laura created in her books, feels true.  She comes across as a fully-fleshed person, with desires and flaws and full awareness of her powerful role as Ma.

If you have fond memories of the Little House books, love frontier narratives, or both, do give this a look!

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “When the English Fall” by David Williams

when the english fallIn When the English Fall, the world is devastated by a natural disaster, and the Amish community in Pennsylvania deals with the aftermath.  An Amish man named Jacob describes the events in his diary.

Since the Amish live largely outside our society, Jacob’s story becomes one of a struggle with faith.  The downfall of “English” society is a test for Jacob and his community, but not in the same way it is for everyone else.  The English themselves are his test.  How can he deny neighbors in need, even at the expense of his family?  Even though these neighbors are not part of the community?  And especially when these neighbors are violent and desperate?

This set-up provides the other side of the coin in those apocalypse stories where the suburban or urban heroes venture out into the country for safety or supplies.  People like Jacob’s family live there in the country.  Jacob comes across as a kind, hardworking, and generous man, possessed of a strong faith.  When you start to realize the way the story might end, it’s hard to read.

The ending is open, but I found it hopeful.  At least, the characters go into the ending with hope and faith, even though they might be walking into something terrible.

This is a thoughtful, somber book, with a great narrator and a unique, original perspective.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories” by Laura Shapiro

what she ateIn What She Ate, Laura Shapiro offers up capsule biographies of six very different women, examining them through the lens of food–how they ate, who they cooked for, their preferences and tastes.  Shapiro’s thesis is that one’s eating habits can be revealing of character, and that’s exactly how she approaches each subject.

As far as Shapiro is concerned, “Food constitutes a natural vantage point on the history of the personal….we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we’re born and lasts until we die.”  Whether you’re an obsessive dieter like Helen Gurney Brown or you use food for fuel like Eleanor Roosevelt, or you enjoy a good gooseberry tart like Dorothy Wordsworth, how you eat and what you eat says a lot about you and how you navigate the world.  It’s a very focused examination, and illuminates a lot of hidden corners in these women’s lives.

Those lives are various: Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurney Brown.  I admit I went into this book not knowing much about any of them, so I am extra happy that Shapiro included a bibliography, because each micro-biography left me curious and wanting to know more!

If you’re in the mood for biography through a very narrow, focused lens (and you love food!) do give this a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

various hauntsThe first in the Simon Serrailler trilogy, The Various Haunts of Men is about mysterious disappearances on a still more mysterious hill in a small English town.

There’s very little Simon Serrailler for a Simon Serrailler book, but that’s okay–the rest of the cast is dynamic, involving, and interesting.  Freya Graffam, a detective who’s just transferred to the town of Lafferton from London, is a smart and dedicated cop and a wonderful investigator to follow.  You don’t even really miss Serrailler, even though you get intriguing glimpses of him (mostly through a love-struck Freya).

Hill’s writing is elegant.  It’s like watching a very high-brow police procedural.  Dark yet still compelling and appealing, with a building tension.  The narrative switches a lot between characters, giving a sense of the scope of the town and its people, as well as their connections.  It’s a nice mix of small-village story and crime.

One of the many POV’s in the book is a tape being narrated by the killer, and it’s very chilling and crazy.  The killer’s sections make a nice counterpoint to Graffam’s hunt.  And I have to give props to the one of the best killer motivations I’ve seen in a while, and very well-done reveal.  A real sucker-punch dark ending, too.

An engaging and intricately constructed bit of crime fiction, and a promising start to a series.  I’ll look forward to reading others, to see how Serrailler and his town are fleshed out.

If you’re a British mystery fan, and you like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and/or Elly Griffiths, you might want to give this a try!

–Marie