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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Halloween Read: “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey

ghostland

American history and haunted places are two of my favorite things!  What a treat to find them both together in one book.

Dickey has this to say in his introduction:

If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses…Tune out the patriotic speeches and sanctioned narratives, and listen instead for the bumps in the night.

That is so true!  The haunted places in a town or city are where you find the dirty secrets, the underbelly, the stuff nobody wants you to know about.  Stories of ghosts are usually stories of some kind of trauma or betrayal or tragedy–and these stories also give these tragedies some meaning after the fact.  There can be justice or understanding where there wasn’t any in life.  A community can make sense of a terrible occurrence through weaving tales of hauntings.

Ghostland is a tour of haunted places which never delves into whether ghosts are real or not.  The fact that ghost stories endure is real enough, and that is what matters to Dickey.  The focus is on what ghosts do for the living, what purposes they serve to individuals, communities, and cultures.

The tour travels all across the United States, from houses to hotels to restaurants to prisons to graveyards to whole towns.   Dickey is a wonderful tour guide.  He’s informed and passionate and a great storyteller.  The atmosphere he creates makes you feel that you’re traveling along with him.

The book also addresses the fact that we live in a changed world.  What do the ghosts of the digital age look like, of the information age?  He mentions how digital lives on social media continue after death, and how that’s a kind of haunting.  But in the end, we’ll always need ghosts, because we’ll always need a way to deal with death and mortality.  The guises and trappings might change, but ghosts and haunted places will always be with us in one way or another, and they’ll always adapt to meet our needs.

Only four days to go until the big day!  Plenty of time for some ghostly armchair travel to get you in the mood.

 

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #4

I’ve hit the wall, folks.

Why, why do I have all this nonfiction on my TBR list?  What was I thinking? I read nonfiction sooooo sloooooooowly!  It’s insanely frustrating.  I’ll be five years completing my to-reads at this rate.  Ugh.  Also 100 pages before I give up?  Why on earth did I feel the need to be so generous?  Particularly with 820 books to read?  Sorry, dumping that guideline, too.

Gloves are off.  I need to deal with this list Kondo-style because life is too short to have a TBR list this long.  I will focus on the books that make me spark with joy and can be vertically folded and stored in a dresser.

Whining out of the way, here’s the update:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  I’m glad I finally got around to this one.  I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the movie.  And yet, it still left me a little cold.  There are some inspired passages, but on the whole it didn’t do much for me.

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine.  I just couldn’t!  I’m sorry!  It’s huge and I’m slow and I have a life to live!

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois.  I’m not sure why this was on my list, to be honest.  I mean, it looks like a novel with an interesting hook, good characters, and from what I read it’s got a nice style, but it’s just not my thing, and it didn’t grab me.  The story is about a woman whose father wrote a letter to a Russian chess champion, and never received a reply–so she sets out to find the chess champion to get her father’s questions answered.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones.  I remember why this one was on the list.  It got a ton of attention and positive reviews when it first came out, with a lot of praise given to the cracking dialogue and inventive storyline that gets wilder and wilder.  I could not get into it at all, I’m afraid, even though it has the tone and feel of Edward Gorey.

Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell.  Another case of why did I want to read this?  Did I hear about it because it influenced another book?  Was I reading a lot about tough neighborhoods in the early 20th century?  Because it was considered an offense to morals when it was published and I was curious?  Never mind, it doesn’t matter–it didn’t grab me at all.

So yeah.  Sorry to be a Debbie Downer this time around, but man.  No wonder some of these have been on my list for so long.  I’ll give Mark Haddon’s The Red House a try next, along with a biography of Julia Child called Dearie.

According to Goodreads I’ve got 819 books to go.  I have lost track of which ones I’ve actually read, which ones I didn’t like and gave up on, and which ones I’ve just booted without a second thought.  I’ll tally at the end of 2017 and not bother thinking about it now.

Surely I must be coming up on books I’m just dying to read!  Or happy surprises!  I really do want to read more than I discard.  We’ll see how it goes.

–Marie

 

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #3

Today in the continuing saga of reading my way through my Goodreads To-Be-Read list:

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.  I’ve read lots of books about English history in my non-fiction group (see our list here), so I’m familiar with the women covered in this book (Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou).  But it was great to see their lives and stories explored in a more fleshed-out way, particularly in the specific context of female leadership in England.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.  I like historical fiction that has a good sense of time and place, but doesn’t get bogged down in detail–there’s a sense of reality that comes from the period detail being in the background, the everyday.  Maitland pulls that off well here, I think.  I also liked the novel as a suspense story, one that played on the tensions between the village, the ancient Owl Men, and the Benguinage.  It’s enthralling and atmospheric with a rich cast of characters.  And now I want to learn more about Beguinages!

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill.  I’m now officially doing a Susan Hill feature for Horror Month, so check back then!

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  I own this.  I have owned this for years.  I tried once again to get into it and once again I’ve failed.  At least I’ve now watched the movie “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”  Which is kind of like saying, “I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the Wishbone episode.”

Medieval Women by Eileen Power.  I think this was on my list because of the many books I’ve read for my nonfiction book group about the Middle Ages.  Not sure where I heard about it, but glad I picked it up!  It’s a collection of lectures Power gave about different aspects of women’s lives in the Middle Ages, including women’s roles and functions, and the gulf between the ideal and the lives of actual women.  Gives a lot of cultural and intellectual context to lots of books I’ve read, both fiction and nonfiction.

Full disclosure: I am technically still in the act of reading She-Wolves and The Small Hand, but I’m going to finish both so they count.

To see previous updates on this challenge, click here and here.  Or just click the TBR Challenge 2017 tag at the bottom of the post.

Next up is another classic I have read the first three pages of at least four times (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and an 800-pager called The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  But it’s “a brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change” according to The New York Times.  So maybe it will go quickly?

To-Read List Currently Stands At: 823.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

WordByWord_BSRbooks_040417Absolutely hilarious and endlessly informative, Word by Word is a pleasure to read–particularly if you love words!

Stamper, a lexicographer who works at Merriam Webster, talks about the nature of her job, the history and usage of dictionaries, and shares great anecdotes.  It’s witty, nerdy fun, and written with a whole lot of passion for words and language.  The behind-the-scenes tour of a dictionary definition is a fun peep behind the curtain of dictionary-making.

What I especially love about this book is how Stamper emphasizes that the role of the dictionary is to show us how language is actually used (with citations to prove it!).  The dictionary is always evolving and being updated, reflecting the culture and the actual usage of phrases and words out in the world.

And English is a super-unruly language to wrangle with, as Stamper notes.  The image of the English language as an incorrigible kid toddling home wearing someone else’s socks and its undies on its head is the best example of her vivid imagery, by the by.

On a personal level it was fun to see how many similarities there are between what a lexicographer does and what a library cataloger does.  This quote, from the epilogue, really spoke to me:

Lexicography is as much a creative process as a scientific one, which means that good lexicography relies on the craft of the drudges at their desks.  Lexicographers will frame their work as “an art and a science,” though we only throw that tired old coat over the bones of our work because it’s recognizable shorthand for saying that this thing–the act of creating a definition, sifting through pronunciations, conjuring Proto-Indo-European roots, ferreting out dates of first written use, rassling with language–isn’t just a matter of following a set of rules.

Stamper goes on to note that writing a dictionary entry is invisible work.  No one ever considers that a person, an educated, experienced person, must sit down and craft a dictionary definition.  She might as well be talking about a library catalog record. Or perhaps I flatter myself.

If you enjoy A.J. Jacobs’ books, you will probably find a lot to like in Stamper’s work.  Her style is accessible yet deeply intelligent, and her love for her work comes through on every page.  Language is a living, breathing, ever evolving thing, and lexicographers are there to keep track of it.

–Marie

P.S.
This is dumb, but I’m scared that Stamper will find this post and will judge my style and usage and word choice. 😦

 

 

Marie’s Currently Reading…Blizzard Edition!

As most of you have probably  heard, there’s a blizzard on the way to Maine tonight.  CRIPPLING, you guys.  It’s going to be CRIPPLING: http://haggett.bangordailynews.com/2017/02/12/home/crippling-blizzard-on-the-way-for-coastal-and-interior-maine-2/

snowmen

I’ll do my level best not to go insane.  No promises.

Tomorrow is looking like a wash.  A whitewash.  We’ve called a closure already here at the library, because…seriously, CRIPPLING BLIZZARD, guys.   In between shoveling out our driveway from the snowdrifts and baking brownies and praying that the power stays on, I’ve got lots of great books on the go for tomorrow’s snowstorm!

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes–a history of hot air ballooning!  There’s something incredibly inspiring about the early aeronauts and their quest to take to the air.  Balloonists were showmen, scientists, adventurers, and everything in between.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart–fun, rollicking historical fiction with a fascinating lead and some cracking good dialogue.  It’s about a woman named Constance Kopp, who was one of the first deputy sheriffs in America.

The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stewart–this is a witty and very entertaining novel about a barber in a small French village.  When he starts losing clients due to baldness, he decides that he’ll become the village matchmaker instead.  It’s clever and cozy but not twee.

Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon–I need at least one thriller on standby.  An alcoholic journalist tries to redeem her life and career by taking on an unsolved case.

Not a bad set of companions for the day.  Apart from Snow Shovel, of course, who I’ll be seeing a lot of.  I hope you’re all holed up somewhere snug and safe tomorrow!

–Marie

 

 

 

 

What YOU’RE Reading, 2015

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked to run a lot of stats about the top-circulating books of the year.  Running all the reports about kids’ items got me wondering: what did the grown-ups read at the Camden Public Library this year?

I put together the list based solely on the number of checkouts a title had in the past year.  As is traditional this time of year, we’ll count down from 10 to 1, 1 being the number one most-circulated book of 2015.

And here’s our countdown!

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