Books I’ve Read This Week: Civil Wars

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 14: Civil Wars Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading a series of biographies and general histories that discuss Civil Wars around the world. The first three books discussed the Stuart dynasty and English Civil Wars from a variety of perspectives, the fourth examined the American Civil War, the sixth discussed Russia’s Time of Troubles amidst other conflicts and the seventh is a popular history of the partition of India and Pakistan. In between, I read about the impact of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the Americas on Italian cuisine. Here are this week’s reviews:

#92 of 365 James I: The Phoenix King by Thomas Cogswell

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: April 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 108 pages

Review:  One of the most entertaining volumes in the Penguin Monarchs series as James I had strong opinions on a variety of topics and the author’s goal is to present the king’s life and reign in his own words as much as possible. Cogswell presents James I’s personality and wide variety of interests, which blended ideas that were ahead of his time (the health risks of tobacco) and ideas that were already being questioned in his own time (witchcraft trials). I would have been interested to read more about the culture of his court as this was a time when William Shakespeare and John Donne were writing their masterworks. I also though there was a little too much time spent on James I’s love of hunting and dogs. The King nicknamed one of his ministers “Beagle” and that was likely a compliment! Overall, this short biography of James I is an an engaging and informative read.

#93 of 365 Cromwell: The Protector by David Horspool

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: April 5-6, 2018

Review: Cromwell probably would not have approved of being included in the Penguin Monarchs series but this volume provides a necessary account of English Civil Wars from the opposite side from the book on Charles I and summarizes the events of the Interregnum. Horspool presents Cromwell as a deeply pious man who was nevertheless willing to act ruthlessly to further his own goals. The section about the Protectorate is confined to a single chapter and I would have liked more details about Cromwell’s infamous military activities in Ireland. There is also very little in the book about Cromwell’s relationship with his wife and children except that he had an apparently harmonious marriage with his “dearest wife” Elizabeth for nearly forty years and his son Richard was not trained as a successor and was unable to remain in power after his father’s death, resulting in the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

#94 of 365 Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars by Linda Porter

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 432 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: April 7-8, 2018

Review:  The adventures of the children of Charles I and Henrietta Maria during the English Civil Wars. While their two eldest sons, Charles II and James II are the subject of numerous biographies, their youngest son, Henry, Duke of Gloucester and their daughters, Mary, Elizabeth, Anne and Henrietta Anne are little known today. The chapters concerning Mary and Henrietta Anne were especially interesting as these princesses represented Stuart interests abroad through their marriages in the Netherlands and France respectively. Royal Renegades is well written and interesting to read but there is a little too much summary of the events of the English Civil Wars and the circumstances of Charles I’s and Henrietta Maria’s marriage. The book is at its best when it focuses closely on the children and their experiences.

#95 of 365 Columbus Menu: Italian Cuisine After the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus by Stefano Millioni

Genre: Cookbook/Food History

Date Read: April 8, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from one of my students in my History of Imperial Spain course 

Format: Paperback, 127 pages

Review: This book was loaned to me by one of the students in my history of Imperial Spain course. The author explains the impact of the New World on Old World cuisine, ingredient by ingredient, including tomatoes, potatoes, beans, squash, turkey and chocolate. While chocolate became immediately popular, other produce from the Americas took longer to shape European cuisine. Spanish conquistadors observed Aztec women selling tomato sauce flavoured with chilies in what is now Mexico city in the 16th century but pasta and tomato sauce was not a common aspect of Italian cuisine in the 19th century (transforming pasta from a finger food to a dish eaten with a fork). I was expecting more history and fewer recipes though the recipes look delicious!

#96 of 365 Grant by Ron Chernow

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 48 hours and 1 minute

Date Listened: March 22-April 9, 2018

Review: An absorbing biography of Ulysses S. Grant, an underrated American president. While his role in the American Civil War is well known the events that followed Lincoln’s assassination are more obscure and the book illuminates a tragic period in American history as the civil rights of Native Americans and African Americans were suppressed despite Grant’s best efforts as President to make a success of Reconstruction in the South and treat native land claims fairly. I was fascinated by all the differences between the presidency in the 1860s and 1870s and today including the absence of campaign speeches, charitable causes for First Ladies and presidential pensions. The final chapters, detailing Grant’s career after the presidency were also interesting as Grant and his wife Julia went on a world tour, meeting more than half a dozen monarchs including Queen Victoria and Czar Alexander II before returning to financial difficulties and a memoir project completed just before Grant’s death. The audiobook was well read by Mark Bramhall but very long, at just over 48 hours.

#97 of 365 Russia: The Story of War by Gregory Carleton

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased on

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 35 minutes

Dates Read: April 11-12, 2018

Review:  I expected to read a military history of Russia in chronological order from the arrival of the Vikings to Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. Instead, Russia: The Story of War is a thematic analysis of the role of war in Russia’s national identity and international reputation. The book examines Russia’s view of itself as a nation under constant threat from west and east, the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and military culture (there is a patron saint of nuclear bombers), and the place of Civil War in Russia’s history. Certain conflicts are emphasized more than others. There is extensive analysis of conflict in Kievan Rus, the Mongols, the Time of Troubles and especially the Crimean War, the Second World War (Great Patriotic War) and Afghanistan. In contrast, the First World War is summarized quickly and Peter the Great’s Great Northern War (which regained Russia’s Baltic coast line and allowed for Saint Petersburg to develop as the Imperial capital) is mentioned in passing. The author includes both historical and literary sources and is especially fond of quoting Tolstoy. Fascinating, but should be read alongside other, more comprehensive histories of Russia.

#98 of 365 Freedom at Midnight: Inspiration for the major motion picture Viceroy’s House by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

Acquired: Purchased from Books and Company in Picton, Ontario

Dates Read: April 10-14, 2018

Genre: History

Format: Paperback: 628 pages

Review: A compelling though incomplete history of the Partition of India and Pakistan. Collins and Lapierre write in a dramatic style and describe the violence and tragedy that accompanied partition in emotional detail. There is a narrow focus, however, on the most famous figures of the time at the expense of the experiences of ordinary people. There are large sections of the book that read as a dual biography of Lord Mountbatten and Mahatma Gandhi rather than a wider history of partition. The authors interviewed Mountbatten for the book and his perspective sometimes dominates the narrative.


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