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The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution
The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution
by Dominic Lieven
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.83
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Step By Step Towards Disaster, August 31, 2015
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Dominic Lieven makes the point early on in this important new work that most histories of World War I inevitably focus on the Western Front and the campaigns of the British, French, and Americans against the Germans. What has been lacking has been a detailed study of how and why Eastern Europe and Russia went to war in 1914. Lieven's effort to rectify that omission is a success, as The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution provides a detailed and intriguing history of the events, personalities, and missteps during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that led to world conflict.

Lieven sets the stage in his first chapter by describing the pre-war world as one dominated by great empires ruled by Europeans, in competition with each other for territory and resources. He then goes on to describe the Russian Empire, covering one-sixth of the earth's surface but almost unique for the era in not possessing colonies or other non-contiguous territories. In a very lengthy chapter called The Decision Makers Lieven describes the men who ran (or at least tried to run) the large and creaky empire, beginning of course with Tsar Nicholas II himself, who comes off as less irresolute but just as blundering as other historians have made him out to be. Then Lieven describes the ministers, courtiers, diplomats, and others who had a voice in shaping Russian foreign policy in those final years. I was interested to see how inter-related and indeed inbred the little world from which Russian leadership was drawn had become, with the success or failure of an aspiring minister's career depending on where he went to school, to whom he was related, and often by how well-connected and friendly his wife was. I was also surprised to learn of the many differences of opinion among the governing officials, especially between those who were Slavophiles and those who were more "Western" oriented and of the role played by a growing number of newspapers which advocated various foreign policies. The next four chapters trace the rising tensions of the pre-war years: Russia's defeat by Japan and the subsequent 1905 Revolution, her partial recovery under semi-constitutional rule, and her gradual rapprochement with her long time enemy Great Britain in the face of a rising German threat. These chapters also detail the long and involved histories of the newly formed Balkan nations, who balanced between Russia, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary and whose own conflicts kept threatening to erupt into a continent wide war. The Balkan Crisis of 1908-09 is well described, as are the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the final July Crisis in 1914. After all of this preparation the final, fairly short chapter and afterword describing Russia's wartime struggles and eventual collapse into revolution in 1917 almost seem perfunctory, but they do contain the same wealth of description and analysis.

This is a very well done history which should certainly help to rebalance some of the "Western Front" histories which have been so dominant. In a world in which we are once again dealing with nationalist pressures in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Ukraine, and Russia itself Lieven's book will be an increasingly invaluable resource.


Tolkien Calendar 2016
Tolkien Calendar 2016
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Calendar
Price: $8.41
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Striking Vision Of The Hobbit, August 31, 2015
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This review is from: Tolkien Calendar 2016 (Calendar)
The official Tolkien Calendar for 2016 is a striking creation featuring dramatic illustrations from the Finnish artist Tove Jansson. Jansson, who died in 2001 aged 86, was an author and illustrator best known for her books and comic strips depicting the Moomins, who inhabited a valley which i as pleasant and peaceful as Tolkien's own Shire but beset by a wider and more dangerous outside world. In the early 1960s Jansson was asked to illustrate the Swedish edition of The Hobbit, and it is from that work that the illustrations for this calendar have been taken.

Jansson's favored technique was to use pen and ink to create etching like illustrations. With the exception of the center illustration depicting Smaug about to attack the dwarves and Bilbo on Erebor and of December's Bilbo in helmet and spear standing in front of Erebor while Smaug circles menacingly (which was the original cover illustration) all of the drawings are black and white. Many are done in great detail while others are more impressionistic. Jansson excelled at depicting landscapes,particularly water and mountains. I particularly liked July's depiction of Laketown with steps leading down to the water and March's landscape of Rivendell showing the dwarves crossing the narrow bridge. May's drawing of the goblins and wargs dancing around the burning pine trees in which the dwarves and Bilbo are cowering is appropriately eerie, as is June's depiction of Mirkwood as a labyrinth of twisted tree trunks through which the Company struggles to find a way. October and November's battle scenes are alive with action and menace. I was less impressed with the final drawing on inside back cover showing beastlike Elves with horns throwing barrels into the Forest River. Author and illustrator Brian Sibley, who provided a very informative essay on Jansson and her work for the inside front cover, mentions an unsuccessful illustration not included in this calendar of a huge Gollum towering over Bilbo.

Despite these occasional missteps Jansson did a fine job of illustrating The Hobbit, and I look forward to enjoying this calendar throughout 2016.


How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem
How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem
by Rod Dreher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.33
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finding Your Way Out Of The Dark Wood, August 24, 2015
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A few years ago Rod Dreher found himself in a dark wood. In his forties, with a wife and three young children and a successful career as a writer and editor, he decided to leave the East Coast and return to his hometown in rural Louisiana. His younger sister was dying of cancer and his parents were aging, so it seemed a sensible choice to make. But once back home he found himself estranged. His family had never understood or accepted his need to leave them for a wider life, and when he attempted to reconnect with them he found his motives and sincerity doubted. At about the same time Dreher was undergoing a personal religious crisis: raised a Methodist, he had converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult, but his shame and disgust over the Church's child abuse scandals alienated him. And then he developed Epstein-Barr Syndrome, losing energy and sinking into deep fatigue, accompanied by depression.

It was at this low point in Dreher's life that he picked up a copy of Dante's Commedia in a bookstore. This long and intricate poem written over five hundred years ago spoke to him in a way that neither his faith nor his family had been able to do. Reading Dante, along with the love and support of his wife and children and the assistance of a therapist and a priest, helped Dreher reexamine his life and his relationship with God and his family.

Slowly, Dreher began to recover. He was able to achieve some reconciliation and healing with his family, found new faith in Orthodox Christianity, and regained energy and focus as his physical health improved. How Dante Can Save Your Life is his chronicle, part memoir and part self-help guide, of his pilgrimage. I found the book to be very moving, not least because Dreher's struggles echo some of my own. My acquaintance with the Commedia is slight and dates from many years ago, but I found Dreher's analyses enlightening, encouraging me to read and become more familiar with Dante's own words.

This is one of those books I would recommend keeping at your side so that you can dip into it and read or reread sections that may seem especially pertinent or helpful to you at that moment. I grew to like and admire Dreher as I read his story, and I am grateful to him for allowing me to see, and learn from, his personal travails.


In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love
In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love
by Joseph Luzzi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.53
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Leaving The Wood, August 20, 2015
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On November 29, 2007 Joseph Luzzi began his journey through the wood. A professor at Bard well known for his inspirational teachings on Dante, all seemed right with his world. But then that world cracked asunder, as a security guard and two of his colleagues told him that his pregnant wife Katherine had been critically injured in a traffic accident. Luzzi became a father to his daughter Isabel, who was delivered by emergency C-section, and then 45 minutes later became a widower. He had the love and support of family and friends who helped him over the next months and years, and he also had Dante, the Italian poet best known for The Divine Comedy. Luzzi was already thoroughly familiar with the poet's works, but over the next four years he found new meaning and comfort within those beautiful cantos, written over five hundred years ago by another man who had suffered shattering bereavement and who lived in permanent exile from much that he loved and held most dear. Now Luzzi's memoir of those terrible yet wondrous years allows his readers to better understand the wisdom and love to be found within Dante's writings.

In A Dark Wood is a moving reading experience. We have all suffered or will suffer great bereavement over the loss of those we loved, though relatively few will do so as suddenly as Luzzi. It may take us years to recover, and some of us may never do so completely. In A Dark Wood's record of Luzzi's experiences and how Dante helped him through it was of great value to me and surely will be to others. The story of Luzzi's slow journey out of the dark wood as he learned to be a father to his daughter and as he sought and finally found new love, again with Dante's words always at his side, was also comforting.
I anticipate that In A Dark Wood will be a book I will want to keep near by and turn to when shadows draw near or when, as Luzzi has inspired me to do, I renew my own old friendship with Dante.


Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death: The Grantchester Mysteries
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death: The Grantchester Mysteries
by James Runcie
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.60
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Impressive Beginning, August 17, 2015
A small English village populated by a motley group of eccentric characters is a time honored setting for murder and mayhem. In Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death James Runcie has created a refreshing new variation on that familiar theme. Grantchester is a seemingly insignificant little place in England in the early 1950s, and Sidney Chambers is the seemingly insignificant vicar who oversees a dwindling flock of the faithful. Chambers, however, is a complex man. A veteran of World War II, intelligent and dutiful, he has a sharp and analytical mind which he is willing to turn to the assistance of the police when they have need of it, as they often seem to do. Chambers manages to combine his investigative work with his normal parish duties while dealing with some personal concerns: unmarried and in his early thirties, he is friends with some women but not yet ready to think of them as anything more than that.

The stories in this first volume of the Grantchester Mysteries are independent of each other, though naturally there are some recurring characters and themes. Most take place in and around Grantchester, with some excursions to London. The usual cast of characters is in place: a noble lord, a talkative housemaid, a skeptical policeman, and another cleric or two. As is true of the best detective stories, the reader is as fascinated by the investigator's own mind and personality as he is by the puzzle to be solved. Those of us who enjoyed the TV dramatizations of the stories in this volume will be pleased to note that some of the best lines are taken verbatim from the text. And all of us who have become fond of Sidney, his increasingly important friend Amanda, and Inspector Keating will be glad to know that Runcie intends to trace their stories from the early 1950s to the 1980s.


The Dust That Falls from Dreams: A Novel
The Dust That Falls from Dreams: A Novel
by Louis de Bernieres
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.83
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One World Ends, And Another Begins, August 13, 2015
Louis de Bernieres' sprawling new novel begins at the start of the "Edwardian afternoon." To celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII in August 1902 the Hamilton McCosh family of Eltham, on the outskirts of London, hold a garden party. Among their guests are their neighbors on either side of their comfortable suburban home: the Pitts who are half-French and rather racy and the Pendennises, recent American transplants who are still finding their footing in their new country. The world seems safe and secure to the children of the three households: the four McCosh daughters and the Pendennis and Pitt sons. None of them have any idea of what the next two decades will bring to them and to their world.

This great historical novel inevitably deals with a lot of tragedy, with the three families all suffering loss and hardship during the war years and the aftermath. But there are also tales of love lost and then reborn, of resilience and recovery, and a surprising amount of humor. The 107 chapters, some of them only a page or so in length, alternate from character to character and are sometimes told in their subjects' own voices. The central character must be Rosemary, the oldest McCosh daughter, but her sisters, parents, friends, and servants are also examined. There are some gutwrenching descriptions of battles and hospitals full of wounded men, but also some beautiful passages about flight and distant lands.

While this book ends with a definite turning point in the lives of the McCoshes and their friends, there are a number of hints that further volumes may be in the offing. I hope so, for I found the characters engaging and hard to forget.


Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof
Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof
by Roger Clarke
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.88
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat Misleading, August 1, 2015
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The title of this book is somewhat misleading, in that there is nothing like a clear narrative or an organized history to be found within its pages. Such is to be expected when "proof" of something unprovable like the supernatural is sought, of course, and possible readers should not rule it out on that account. This book is more of an episodic history of various "real life" ghosts, some of which are more interesting to read about than others.

Roger Clarke is a film writer and reviewer who has spent much of his life being fascinated by the supernatural. With that experience it is disappointing that so many of his stories here tend to be rambling and often repetitive, poorly organized and with an emphasis on sensation (which of course is par for the course when writing about ghosts and similar phenomena). I did enjoy the chapters that deal with nineteenth century mediums and their various deceptions, and the ones that covered Hinton Ampner, Epworth Priory, Borley Rectory, and other notorious haunted houses were interesting as well. I'm quite fond of M.R. James' ghost stories, and I appreciated Clarke's efforts to identify some of the actual houses and other sites which James used for his settings.

A book which covers some of the same ground as Clarke on nineteenth century "ghost hunting" and mediums is Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James And The Search For Scientific Proof Of Life After Death, albeit with a more skeptical tone.


The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock
The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock
by Lucy Worsley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.95
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Very English Obsession, July 28, 2015
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Besides rain, cricket, afternoon tea, and The Queen herself there is nothing considered more quintessentially English than a good murder mystery. Lucy Worsley, whose wit and sparkle enhance her intellect and solid scholarship, in The Art Of The English Murder examines the most famous English mystery writers and some of the most infamous of the murders which helped to inspire them.

Murder, of course, has been a part of history as long as humans have, but the modern fascination with that particular crime dates from the beginnings of the nineteenth century. A newly literate population that was eager for entertainment, snatched up broadsides, newspapers, and pamphlets which carried the news of the day. No news was more intriguing than stories of dastardly murders, the bloodier the better. Newly organized police forces in the burgeoning industrial cities strove to track down and bring to justice the murderers, and the reports of their investigations fascinated the reading public as well. Worsley starts her history here, examining famous murderers like William Palmer and Madeleine Smith, still unsolved mysteries like Jack the Ripper and the Rode House murder, Jack Whicher and other police investigators, and, of course, the writers and novelists who produced elaborate fictions based on the crimes that filled the popular press. These included Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and J. Sheridan Le Fanu among many others. Worsley then goes on to examine the rise of the "middle class murderer" and the rise of forensic science in the late nineteenth century (the heyday of Conan Doyle) and then really hits her stride with the "Golden Age" of detective fiction: the interwar period during which Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh and many others filled bookshops and libraries with their ingenious tales. Eventually, with the rise of the thriller and the psychological mystery, the straight detective story focussing on the mechanics of crime solving fell out of favor,although murder mysteries produced by Alfred Hitchcock and others still found an audience.

Readers who enjoy The Art Of The English Murder will also find Judith Flanders' The Invention Of Murder, The Suspicions Of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, The Poisoner by Stephen Bates, and Sandra Hempel's The Inheritance Powder, among many other recent works, of interest.


Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West
Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West
by Matthew Dennison
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.09
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life Of Intensity, July 21, 2015
Vita Sackville-West was famous for her intellect, her sensuality, and her intensity. Matthew Dennison's new biography well captures that intensity, both in her public life as an author, commentator, and creator of a famous garden as well as in her stormy personal life.

Victoria Sackville-West was born at Knole, the quintessential Stately Home. Vita, as she was always known, lived a fairy tale existence with more than a few thorns and ogres. Her parents were absorbed in their own affairs and Vita was raised largely by the servants. She loved Knole, but as a daughter she was unable to inherit it or the Sackville lordship that went with it. Because of this Vita was always very proud of her name and ancestry but also extremely defensive. As an intelligent young woman she found few attractions in the role prescribed for her by tradition: to make her Society debut, find a suitable husband, and produce children. Early in her life she began to write romances and stories based on her family history, and in early adulthood she began to publish stories, novels, poems, and biographies. She married Harold Nicolson, a young diplomat from a good family, and gave birth to two sons.

Although Vita and her husband were devoted to each other, they had the most open of marriages, both pursuing long love affairs with various members of their own sex. Vita's first lesbian affair with Violet Keppel Trefusis scandalized Society. Later she was to fall in love with many other women, most famously Virginia Woolf. Her literary career blossomed and she became a well known commentator on the BBC. In middle age she and Harold purchased Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and busied themselves creating beautiful gardens, a focus which lasted until their deaths in the 1960s.

Matthew Dennison does a good job of depicting Vita and Harold's lives and personalities, as well as those of the many women and men with whom they became romantically involved. Sometimes these relationships were quasi-incestuous, with Vita having affairs with women whose husbands were lovers of Harold. He also well depicts Vita's (and to a lesser extent Harold's) celebrated literary accomplishments. The book is beautifully illustrated and is well researched and annotated. Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson were a fascinating couple, and though their private lives were often messy and even sordid, their books and their beautiful Sissinghurst gardens remain as their memorials.


After Perfect: A Daughter's Memoir
After Perfect: A Daughter's Memoir
by Christina McDowell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.88
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sins Of The Fathers Are Visited Upon The Children, July 18, 2015
The first 18 years of Christina McDowell's life were perfect: the second of three daughters born to a wealthy lawyer and his beautiful wife, she lived in an opulent mansion outside Washington, D.C. where she and her sisters were adored and pampered. Then, when she was 18 and in her first year of college in Los Angeles, Christina got a frantic phone call from her mother: her father had been arrested for fraud and money laundering, and suddenly what had seemed a secure and privileged life was gone. This memoir covers the next ten years of Christina and her family's life, a sometimes horrifying but always engrossing tale not only of loss, but also of resilience.

In many ways Christina's story is like the proverbial car wreck: utterly appalling but also fascinating. She reveals to her readers what she learned about the reality of her father's life in the same way she herself discovered it, little by little. Her father opened credit accounts in her name, set up fraudulent companies supposedly controlled by his daughters, and did everything he could to wreck their lives before they had properly started. The impact on Christina and her sisters was all too predictable: financial catastrophe, interrupted educations, sudden near homelessness, and eventually drug and alcohol abuse. The one adult to whom they could have turned for comfort was their mother, but she was just as devastated and just as helpless in the face of calamity. Worst of all was their imprisoned father's continual assurances that everything would turn out all right, that he had secret resources and plans that would solve all their problems and make them wealthier than before. Christina's gradual recognition that she could not rely on her father's promises is one of the key themes of her story.

Few of us have ever experienced such a cataclysmic fall from grace, and Christina is to be congratulated for having the strength to relive it to tell us about it. At the end of the book she and her sisters and mother appear to have weathered the worst of the disaster, though the after effects will be with them for the rest of their lives.


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