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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26 Books to Read in 2015: #17

I am going to make this challenge happen, no matter how much I have to bounce around the list.  This time I will not fail!

For those who might not have heard, I’m attempting to participate in a reading challenge this year.  It’s called 26 Books to Read in 2015, hosted by Bringing Up Burns.  Here’s my first title for the challenge!

#17: A book that will make you smarter: The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Marc Morris.

The+Norman+Conquest

Well, I’m now smarter about the Norman Conquest.  So that counts!

Morris is an engaging writer, one who is clearly super-passionate about his subject.  His tone is that of a fun history teacher, telling you all about the context and set-up of the Norman Conquest, as well as the immediate aftermath.  He begins with the reign of Edward the Confessor, and goes into the relationship between England and Normandy at the time.  Again and again Morris stresses how little we actually know for sure, and takes care to explain the genesis and biases of what sources we have.  But he presents a cohesive and coherent story, managing not to take sides and to portray everyone involved as human and of their time period.  The immediacy, particularly when talking about the Battle of Hastings, is wonderfully done.

A great read for those who, like me, have only the barest knowledge of 1066 and all that and want to know more.  It’s compelling and well-told, so if you’re not usually a non-fiction reader (again, like me), you’ll keep on reading.

–Marie

Surprise Smekday!

Rather soon for another Surprise Smekday.  Oh, well.

I have no excuses this time except that I found way too many books to read all at once.  Wonderful novels and intriguing nonfiction, all too good to pass up.  Here a combined list of my Currently Reading and TBR Piles:

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
J: A Novel by Howard Jacobsen
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

With the exception of J, each of those has a bookmark somewhere in it. Something’s got to give.  And that something is one of the books I started before Christmas and which swiftly found its way to the bottom of the pile.

So who’s receiving a Dear John letter today?

arugulaPity poor The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp. It’s funny, charming, affectionate, and informative, and I just don’t have time for it right now.  I’m ashamed to say I’ll probably keep it in mind for a casual fling-read or two over lunch, if I’m free from other books and it happens to be on the shelf.

I do hope it finds a reader who can commit to it properly.  It’s a fun foodie read which I hope one day to read all the way through.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading Some Things, Let Her Tell You Them

As you can probably tell by the title of this post, I am not “braining so good” today, as we say on the Internet.

Cannot Brain

But I have been reading some books lately.  So I’ll do my best to coherently tell you about them.

prayersPrayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
This is one of those novels where a plot description just isn’t enough to explain what the book really is.  The story is about Ladydi, a young girl who lives in a tiny community in Gurrero, Mexio, on a mountain just outside of Alcapulco.  It is a poor area completely dominated by drug lords.  There are no men on the mountain, as they have gone to the U.S. to find work.  Only women remain, and the young girls are in constant danger of being stolen (kidnapped and then trafficked by the drug lords).  Ladydi comes of age and tries to make the best life she can for herself in this environment.

Just given that description, it sounds dire and depressing.  For sure, there’s a deep sadness here, but it comes across as just a reality of life.  There’s also a lyrical, almost poetic note to Clement’s prose.  Somehow the brutality of Ladydi’s world and experiences is both lessened and magnified by the style.  And, of course, Ladydi is tough and matter-of-fact, and never melodramatic.  She’s a wonderful protagonist to follow.  The depiction of Mexico and the people who still love it no matter what it has become is also moving and provides a wonderful sense of place.  If you like this, try Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees or Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman.

closed doorsTalking of Lisa O’Donnell, her new book Closed Doors is every bit as affecting and ultimately hopeful as The Death of Bees.  In Closed Doors, a boy named Michael Murray is trying to piece together exactly what befell his mother one night.  All the information he has comes from the overheard and confusing (and often contradictory) statements from the adults around him.  O’Donnell excels at creating a close-knit island community that any small-towner will recognize–for the bad and for the good.  She also gives great believable voice to Michael, a boy who never seems to be anything but just that–a boy who lives in a tough situation and can’t make sense of it to himself.  Family dynamics and dealing with trauma are painted quite realistically as well, from darkly funny to hopeful to sad.  It’s a moving piece of realistic fiction.  If you liked Emma Donoghue’s Room, you might give this one a try.

alexandriaThe Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid
Book clubs are fantastic when it comes to getting you out of your usual reading comfort zone.  The wonderful nonfiction book group I joined is no exception.  Our latest read was The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, a wonderfully readable and accessible survey of the political and intellectual history of the once-great city of Alexandria.  Personally, my classical history is sorely lacking, so I learned a LOT just by reading this slim volume.  If you’re a better-versed student of the period (331 BC to AD 646, roughly), you still might enjoy the focus on the intellectual and scientific–all the work of the great Library of Alexandria, much of which is now lost.  In the introduction, the authors give part of the point of their work as:

We will not only return to the lost wonders of Alexandria, we will also try to enter the ‘mind’ of the city, to discover why it produced such an extraordinary flowering of creativity, knowledge, and understanding.  And we will discover that at the core of this dazzling whirlpool of ideas lies the thing you are reading now: the written word.

Never has a city and culture so devoted to the idea of learning for learning’s sake existed before or since Alexandria.  This book is also a love letter to a lost library, to lost ideas.  Only about one percent of the books once held in the library at Alexandria survive today.  This is really wonderful read on several levels, including the bibliography and notes!

That’s all my brainbox can handle for now, kids, if I want to get any cataloging done today.  My current reading consists of The Count of Monte Cristo (another book group pick), Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English,  and, on a whim, The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh.  Mostly,  I’m hovering like a vulture waiting for Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Paying Guests, to be ready to circulate.  I will most definitely be writing a blog post about that one.

–Marie

Simply Books! February Meeting

“What do introverts have to say to extroverts?  What can we teach them?”

“To SHUT UP!”

Classic.

The above pretty much sums up the February meeting of the Simply Books! group.  It was hilarious.  OH, and we talked about some great books, as well.   We talked about the power of music and how it influences and enhances the human experience, we discussed an original take on literary criticism (Passionate Minds, below, which the reader, in a description I love, called “yummy and fun”), and then we all commiserated about the joys and challenges of being an introvert in an extrovert’s world.

And those were just the longest subsets of our book chat!  There was a lot more that we chatted about, laughed about, and shared, and it was as great a meeting as ever.

Below please find the books that we all read for February:

 GolemThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Six SongsThe World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin

StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

eleanor and parkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

AndthemountainsAnd The Mountains Echoed by Kahled Hosseini

passionate mindsPassionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts In a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

14931493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann

motherdaughtermeMother, Daughter, Me by Katie Hafner

cat senseCat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw

Just a reminder, we now meet on the FOURTH Saturday of each month.  So our next Simply Books! meeting will be March 22nd at 2pm, in the Jean Picker Room.

Hope to see you there!

–Marie

Simply Books! May Meeting

I think that the last meeting of Simply Books! was quite possibly the most informative meeting we’ve ever had.  From North Korean prison camps to hospice volunteering to the history of the United States Navy to cosmology…I think we all learned something new and different, and we had some wonderful conversations about the nature of the universe, the concept of meaning, the power of mythology and story, and the reason why the U.S. government chose frigates as the first ships of the navy.

Get our list after the jump! Continue reading