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The Habsburg Empire: A New History
The Habsburg Empire: A New History
by Pieter M. Judson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.72
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Competing Nationalisms, April 25, 2016
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The Habsburg Empire, also known as the Austrian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Austria-Hungary, often seems to conjure up a comic-opera image of strutting officials in lavish uniforms, overdressed ladies consuming vast quantities of sweets, and a general air of pomposity, inefficiency, and incompetence. Nearly one hundred years after the Empire's collapse in 1918, however, Pieter M. Judson's new history makes the case that the Habsburgs and the bureaucracies they created to help them rule their vast territories were more capable and better organized than is generally perceived. This is a lengthy book of some 450 pages, plus another 100 pages of extensive Notes. Divided into eight chapters and an epilogue, it covers the period from Maria Theresa's reign in the eighteenth century through the 1918 collapse and its aftermath. It's a lengthy book with a lot of detail, but it is also well written, with new material and conclusions that challenge long accepted interpretations and hold the reader's interest.

The Habsburg Dynasty was one of the world's great success stories. Emerging from a single castle in what is now Switzerland during the Middle Ages, the family managed through an adroit policy of making advantageous marriages and managing inheritances to gain control of much of Central Europe and become Holy Roman Emperors. Judson's history begins with Maria Theresa, only child of Emperor Charles VI. When she succeeded her father in 1740 her territories almost immediately came under attack from rapacious neighbors like Frederick the Great's Prussia. Maria Theresa was intelligent and charismatic, and she was able to rally her subjects and defeat or at least fight to a stalemate most of her enemies. The Empress was responsible for developing a new way of treating the people she ruled: as individual citizens with rights and privileges that were to be guaranteed and protected by the central state. She and her two sons Emperors Joseph II and Leopold II laid the groundwork for a bureaucracy that helped them govern from the center and weaken the power of local landlords and nobles. This process continued under Emperor Francis I, who became Emperor of Austria when the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806.

During the nineteenth century the policy of centralization and bureaucratic rule continued. Emperor Francis Joseph I, who ruled from 1848 to 1916, had to deal with the growth of nationalist impulses that threatened the unity of his multi-ethnic empire. These nationalisms could be based on language, ethnicity, or a combination of both. The Emperor proved to be fairly adroit in playing off competing sides against each other and in balancing demands so that he and the central government kept the upper hand most of the time. When he was forced into allowing the Hungarian section of his territories to become independent, thus creating the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867, he continued to manage to keep things rumbling along successfully most of the time. At the back of Francis Joseph and his predecessors' plan all along was the commitment to keep the Empire's subjects loyal to the Empire rather than to their specific language or national group. For the most part, during the prosperous late nineteenth century, Francis Joseph succeeded. Railroads, telephones, telegraphs and other technological developments helped tie distant provinces firmly to the capitals of Vienna and Budapest, and most of his subjects saw Francis Joseph as the final guarantor of their rights and
freedoms.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 is commonly held to have doomed Austria-Hungary right way. Judson makes the point that the Empire was fairly successful in holding together for the first year or so of the war, but food and supply shortages and high casualty rates placed too much stress on its governing structure. Francis Joseph's death in 1916 and the succession of his great-nephew Emperor Charles seemed to provide a brief burst of new energy and hope, but by the fall of 1918 the end was inevitable. In a several weeks long collapse the different segments of the Empire broke free, and the last Emperor and his family were forced to flee.

In the post war period the new nation-states that arose from the ruins of Austria-Hungary tore down imperial emblems and statues but retained many of the Empire's laws and even some of its officials. The new nations were often weak and their governments frequently turned to a fervent new form of nationalism that emphasized specific peoples and languages, rather than continuing the Imperial policy that focused on the unity of disparate peoples under one government. That is probably one of the most important of Judson's insights, especially at a time when new fears of immigration appear to be encouraging new and more strident forms of nationalism in the West.


The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece
The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece
by Laura Cumming
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.12
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Obsession Through The Centuries, April 19, 2016
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Diego Velazquez is rightfully accounted one of the greatest of painters, and also as one of the least understood. He is remembered for a series of magnificent portraits, usually of seventeenth century Spanish royalty and nobility but also including many perceptive studies of servants, court dwarfs, and other menials. With the slightest touch of his brush he could depict his sitters' inner characters so well that some, including the King of Spain, often refused to pose for him lest he reveal too much. In the nineteenth century John Snare was a busy stationer and bookseller in Reading, England, prosperous enough that he could indulge a love for collecting old paintings. At one fateful auction Snare was struck by the grimy portrait of a young man, purchased it for a few pounds, then spent the rest of his life obsessed with it.

That portrait is the link between Velazquez and Snare. Snare became convinced that it was a long lost portrait of the future King Charles I of England, known to have been painted by Velazquez in 1623 during the Prince's unsuccessful attempt to marry a Spanish Infanta, and spent the rest of his life attempting to convince the rest of the world of the rightness of his belief. This led to financial ruin, separation from his family, a lengthy lawsuit from a Scottish peer who believed he was the rightful owner of the painting, and eventual obscurity and an unknown grave in New York City.

Laura Cumming's fascinating chronicle traces Snare's story and tells it in parallel with that of Velazquez. The daughter of a painter and an art critic herself, Cumming does an excellent job of describing and analyzing Velazquez's paintings for us, so that we actually feel we are standing in front of Las Meninas in the Prado, for example. She does just as good a job of detection in her reconstruction of Snare's life, though the paper trail was frustratingly faint and she is forced to disappoint us in the end by revealing that no trace of Snare's painting can be found today.

I finished this book knowing a great deal more about, and with an infinitely greater appreciation of, the work of Diego Velazquez. I also finished it with great sympathy for John Snare and the hope that someday, in some bank vault or dark corner, his painting will be rediscovered and finally verified as a Velazquez.


Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
by Carlo Rovelli
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.80
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profundity In A Small Package, April 15, 2016
My experience with physics in high school and college consisted largely of memorizing formulae and using them to solve problems that were mind-numbingly mundane. I understood that beauty and mystery could be found in physics, but I had no idea how to unlock the door that led to them. Carlo Rovelli's small book of less than 100 pages has finally unlocked that door and opened it far enough that I can glimpse the wonders within.

The seven lessons included here were written by Rovelli, a theoretical physicist and a founder of the loop quantum gravity theory (which is explained in one of the lessons,) for an Italian newspaper. Thus the lessons are written with the non-specialist, though intelligent, reader in mind. Rovelli has both the mind of a scientist and a poet, and his explanations of theories and concepts that could quickly become arcane are instead approachable and intriguing.

This is one of those odd but satisfying books that earn a special place in their readers' hearts. Read it, even if physics seems an impenetrable mystery to you, and you will catch a glimpse of the light.


The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
by Stratford Caldecott
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.85
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Meaning Behind The Words, April 12, 2016
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J.R.R. Tolkien's deep Christian faith was an integral part of his life and writings. A Roman Catholic in a country where there was still considerable prejudice against "Popery," he had to deal with social exclusion and some harassment during his youth. Having to deal with this discrimination strengthened his faith. Stratford Caldecott, himself an English Catholic, has written a very beautiful account of the ways in which Tolkien's faith and vision helped him form the tales which became his life's work.

Caldecott's account is partly a spiritual biography of Tolkien himself and partly a spiritual analysis of his writings. I am not a Catholic, and while I am very familiar with Tolkien's worlds inevitably some of the religious symbolism and references had passed me by, so I am grateful to Caldecott for enhancing my future enjoyment and understanding. I also appreciated his references to the works of other Tolkien authorities, especially Verlyn Flieger, whose writings are complementary to and expand on much of what is found in this volume. There is very little reference to Tolkien "fandom", though the last of Caldecott's nine Appendices is given over to a fairly critical analysis of the three Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies.

In many ways I found reading The Power of the Ring evoked the same pleasure and mystery I experience when I reread Tolkien, and there can be no higher praise than that.


Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve
Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve
by Tom Bissell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.61
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Journey, April 8, 2016
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To most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, the Twelve Apostles are both known and unknown. Most can correctly identify them as the first followers of Jesus Christ, but after that knowledge of the Twelve quickly dwindles into half-remembered stories and legends. Tom Bissell was born and raised a Roman Catholic, but lost his faith as a teenager and now considers himself a non-believer. His journeys to visit the tombs and shrines associated with the Apostles reveal both his early religious training and his present skepticism. The book which is the result of those journeys is a fascinating combination of religious and cultural history with a modern-day traveler's diary, leavened with good humor which is often, not surprisingly in the circumstances, irreverent.

Bissell's book is full of fascinating information that often branches into surprising tangents. The first chapter, on Judas Iscariot, includes a lengthy segment detailing Bissell's journey to Jerusalem and his efforts to locate the Hakeldama or Field of Blood, which involves a lot of tense Israeli/Palestinian contacts and confrontations. Similarly, his chapter on Thomas covers Bissell's arduous journey to and through Chennai/Madras while that on Matthew includes a long odyssey through the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Every chapter describes what is known about an Apostle and what the legends and traditions surrounding him tell us. Inevitably this means that there is a lot of early Christian history, which Bissell does a good job of explaining so that the differences between Arianism and Athanasianism, for example, are clear even to those without much background in the subject.

I have a strong religious background, but I was surprised by so much that I read in Apostle that was new to me. I knew vaguely that the Apostle Thomas was supposed to have traveled to India, but I had never realized that "Thomas Christians" had played a long and continuing role in the subcontinent's history. I have studied the early Christian heterodoxies but have rarely found them described so clearly and succinctly,

Apostle necessarily includes many terms and concepts which may not be familiar to readers without much background in the subject, but Bissell helpfully provides a Glossary of People and Terms at the end which was invaluable. I also appreciated his lengthy annotated Bibliography. I finished Apostle with renewed appreciation for the complexities of Christianity and the lengthy, sometimes intricately detailed, road (or roads) it has followed since its beginnings in first century Judea.


Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior
Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior
by Bart D. Ehrman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.01
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Persistence of Memory?, March 31, 2016
Bart Ehrman's books are always well documented and well reasoned, engagingly written and guaranteed to leave his readers with much to ponder. Jesus Before the Gospels must be counted among the best of his works. Besides Ehrman's usual feast of textual analysis and historical interpretation of the Gospels and other early Christian writings he also provides some fascinating information on memories: how they are formed, how they change, and how they persist.

Ehrman begins with some general analyses of oral traditions and their effects on the developments of individual and group memories. He moves on to examine the Biblical stories of Jesus in the canonical Gospels as well as those in accounts deemed apocryphal. While many of his readers will find reason to dispute some of his reasoning on why some memories of Jesus are "gist memories" while others are "distorted," that reasoning is always fascinating. Some of his work here inevitably reiterate ideas from his earlier books, but that's not to say that anything here is stale or overstated.

It's a sad fact that many people refuse to read anything which they fear may challenge their faith or world view. While Ehrman's latest,like all his books, is eye-opening and challenging, learning more about the circumstances through which the writings we call Holy Scripture came down to us can only be positive.


Black Rabbit Hall
Black Rabbit Hall
by Eve Chase
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.39
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4.0 out of 5 stars Reminiscent of Du Maurier/Vine, March 21, 2016
This review is from: Black Rabbit Hall (Hardcover)
The names which most vividly came to my mind as I read Black Rabbit Hall were Daphne du Maurier and Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell). The hallmarks of their most famous novels are all present: the mysterious mansion, the family plagued by a history of tragedy and violence, the brooding atmosphere, and several unexpected plot twists. Eve Chase's first book marks her as a worthy talent who has the potential to please a growing number of fans for many years to come.

Black Rabbit Hall's story line jumps between the late 1960s and the present and between two main protagonists: Amber Alton, who is 15 in 1968, the oldest child in a happy family, devoted to her parents and siblings, particularly her twin Toby; and Lorna, a young woman in the present, newly engaged and very much in love, who is searching for the perfect setting for her wedding. There are many links between Amber and Lorna, with the first and most evident being the magnificent but somewhat run down Black Rabbit Hall. Tragedy strikes Amber's family at Black Rabbit Hall and changes it forever. Lorna happens upon the Hall many years later and is fascinated by what she discovers about the tragedy, but doesn't realize until near the end that her own life is irrevocably connected to Amber's.

This is a well written tale which well evokes the Cornish atmosphere. The characters are well drawn and believable. Eve Chase undoubtedly has a long and happy career ahead of her.


Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
by Tim Whitmarsh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.82
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Erudite Yet Accessible, March 17, 2016
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Tim Whitmarsh's excellent new book deals with "Atheism in the Ancient World," but in many ways it is really a history of the classical eras of Greece and Rome. That's a strength, by the way, because philosophy is naturally an integral part of Hellenic and Roman history.

The book is divided into four sections on Archaic Greece, Classical Athens, The Hellenistic Era, and (somewhat briefly), Rome. Whitmarsh's main theme is that atheism, which is often considered an outgrowth of the European Enlightenment, was present alongside religious belief from the very earliest stages of Western culture. To prove this he draws material from a vast array of philosophers, from the most well known to the more obscure.

I enjoyed Battling the Gods. I've studied quite a bit about the classical era but I always find new discussions fascinating. Whtimarsh is not writing with an ax to grind, and though he must occasionally disagree with other historians he does so respectfully. The book is very scholarly, with a long and detailed Notes section, but is written with general non-specialist readers in mind. It really should become one of the standard references on the subject.


No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money
No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money
by David Lough
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.51
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Churchill Owed So Much To So Many!, March 10, 2016
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Winston Churchill was one of those larger than life personalities. His fifty year long political life and his even lengthier career as journalist, biographer, historian, and commentator; his outsized consumption of food, alcohol, and tobacco; and his complex relationships with friends, colleagues, rivals, and family are all notorious. David Lough's fascinating new biography focuses on another aspect of Churchill's life that is less well known: his life long problems with money. Earning money was rarely a problem for Churchill, but keeping it was another matter indeed.

Since Churchill was the grandson of a duke and of a Wall Street millionaire most people would assume that money was the last thing he would ever have to worry about. But his father Lord Randolph Churchill was a younger son whose financial inheritance was small, and his maternal grandfather Leonard Jerome's financial affairs were too tangled and uncertain to allow him to leave much to his descendants. Churchill's parents lived in grand style on fairly small incomes, borrowing fortunes and spending even larger ones. Young Winston grew up thinking of money as a nuisance that other people had to worry about.

Churchill carried on the family tradition tenfold when he became an adult. He was an indefatigable journalist, turning out reams of copy for which he was quite well paid. He then proceeeded to spend much more than he earned as he began to make his way in politics, got married and started a family, and rose to the British Cabinet before his fortieth birthday. He spent lavishly, bought houses and estates he couldn't afford, gambled at Monte Carlo and Biarritz, and borrowed and borrowed again from wealthy friends. The pattern continued and intensified through World War I and the Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II. He had impressive streaks of good luck and then devastating periods of bad luck, such as when he made the decision to invest heavily in US stocks in the summer of 1929. Many of his investments might now raise eyebrows and lead to accusations of insider trading, influence peddling, and profiteering, but his powerful personality and multitudinous political and financial connections allowed him and his fortunes to thrive nevertheless.

This is a well written and eye opening chronicle of excess. Churchill made and squandered several fortunes in his long lifetime, shuffling funds back and forth between different investment vehicles and trusts. It was fascinating and amusing to read about the gall and indifference to public opinion with which he went about dealing with his finances, squeezing time out of his busiest days to deal with his money managers even in the darkest wartime moments. I felt sorriest for his wife Clementine, who came from a family of gamblers and spendthrifts and who was much more cautious with money as a result, but I was relieved to learn that one end result of her husband's machinations left her and their children fairly well provided for

Winston Churchill deserves his reputation as a giant of twentieth century world history, and nothing in this book detracts from it. Rather, Lough's tale rounds out the tale of Churchill's life and makes him even more impressive, (and exasperating.)


Masterpiece: Downton Abbey Season 6
Masterpiece: Downton Abbey Season 6
DVD ~ Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter Hugh Bonneville
Price: $24.96
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Finale Of A Sensation, March 6, 2016
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Downton Abbey has been a sensation since the first series aired back in 2010-11. We've watched and loved the noble Crawley family and their servants go through tragedies and triumphs for five years now, and this final season inevitably has a bittersweet air to it. Therefore it's a relief to be able to say that the 6th and final season maintains the high standard set by the very first episode.

In 1925 Lord and Lady Grantham, their two surviving daughters, three grandchildren, and one living son-in-law, not to mention the redoubtable Dowager Countess, have weathered the storm of World War I and its immediate aftermath. The world is changing, but much of what makes life so pleasant for the upper classes is still intact. Downstairs in the servant hall there are fewer faces, and the veterans are facing some personal and professional challenges, but overall things are still running pretty much as they always have.

Since this is the final season, there is an inevitable air of "tieing up the loose ends." Attention must be given to the tangled romantic affairs of Lady Mary and Lady Edith, and the sometimes rocky relationship between the Earl and Countess needs some resolution as well. Similar issues involving Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Thomas, Mr. and Mrs. Bates, and Daisy need to be dealt with. Having watched the entire season I am happy to report that Julian Fellowes and his intrepid cast have done an admirable job of dealing with these details and more. If some storylines weren't completely resolved, enough hints are dropped to ensure that we are left with a good idea of what will eventually happen.

The DVD set has three discs with the full 9 hour UK version of the final season. An additional fourth disc contains the first episodes of three other series: Grantchester, the 2015 version of Poldark, and Indian Summers.There are 30 minutes of bonus material, chiefly three short segments featuring interviews with cast members and some historic details about the buildings and cars used in the series. It's sad to say goodbye to the Crawleys, but owning the DVD sets ensures that we can always revisit them. If you are eager for similar stories, I can recommend the original five seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs.


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