Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Molly Lefebure was a young journalist in London when she was tapped to become the secretary for forensic pathologist Dr. Keith Simpson during the years of World War II.  She details her experiences, including some involvement with famous murder cases, in Murder on the Home Front.

As the secretary to Dr. Simpson, Ms. Lefebure was required to attend autopsies and visit crime scenes in order to take notes.  Often, she apparently lugged along a typewriter to do her work.  Some of the interesting cases she helped with were the Dobkin murder (where the murdered woman was first mistaken for a bombing victim), the Luton Sack Murder, and the pitiful case of poor Joan Pearl Wolfe, who lived in a "wigwam" in the woods and was bludgeoned to death by her Canadian soldier lover.

Ms. Lefebure doesn't seem at all bothered by death, bodies (no matter what condition the unfortunates are found in), dismembered limbs, etc. but she's very judgmental of the behavior of the people who end up the victims of violent crime.  In one chapter, she mentions a "not very interesting" murder of  "a girl of fifteen and a half who had already given much trouble by running around with men" (easy to read between the lines that the teenager was just asking to be murdered and how boring it all was).  Then there's the case of the young soldier who commits suicide, apparently because of the shame he felt at having been diagnosed with a venereal disease.  The author laments "if the soldier had been a young middle-class intellectual, instead of a respectable working-class boy" he would have been able to shrug off the experience.  She further demonstrates her lack of sensitivity when she describes Rachel Dobkin, who was murdered by her husband, as being a "poor, stupid, inoffensive little woman."  There are also plenty of shocked comments on the state of some houses (as a result of the housekeeping practices, not the because of the crime scenes) she visits.  The book begins with an editor's note stating that some passages were edited for this edition.  I shudder to think what was left out when sections like those mentioned above were allowed to stay.

While the book was originally published in the mid 1950s, when attitudes were apparently very different to the sensitivities of today, it's still rather shocking to read how little sympathy Ms. Lefebure had for the victims.  Still, I suppose it takes a tough exterior to be able to work around such tragic and upsetting scenes, so maybe she wasn't as unfeeling and dismissive as she appears.

Final verdict for Murder on the Home Front  Two Gherkins for being an inside look at a fascinating time in forensic science unfortunately written by an unsympathetic narrator
The book Radical Beauty starts off with a dedication to the reader: "May you fully accept and embrace the unique Radical Beauty that you already are."  Three hundred and five pages later, you have presumably transformed your already perfectly fine Radically Beautiful self into . . . an even better version?  Unsettling dedication aside, the book is full of information, advice and recipes to help make healthy lifestyle changes.  With the start of the new year, nearly everyone is looking for a fresh start and this book has many great ideas to put that new motivation into action.

Divided into 6 "Pillars" (Internal Nourishment, External Nourishment, Peak Beauty Sleep, etc.), the book aims not to sell readers on the latest fad diet or cosmetic or exercise routine, but rather to make women feel better and regain their confidence in their own skins.  Instead of seeing beauty as a temporary and constantly elusive quality, every woman can achieve her own beauty that is unique and doesn't rely on comparisons either to others or some societal, impossible ideals.

Pillar one takes a very thorough and informative look at how the foods we eat impact on our outer appearance (oily skin, dull hair, brittle nails, etc.) as well as our overall health.  While everyone knows this in theory, the way the authors break down and explain the good and bad foods (and why they fall into these categories) is very interesting.  I especially like how each author gets his or her say.  For instance, Kimberly Snyder sees no use for dairy in modern diets at all, while Dr. Chopra feels it can have a place at the table, in moderation. Seeing that the experts have a hard time coming to consensus on dietary advice even for a chapter in a book helps to illustrate how seriously confused the average consumer is!  The nutritional portion of the book is the largest chapter and contains lots of practical advice.  One idea I liked was the suggestion to "visualize" all the gross things that are going on inside your body as it tries to digest a large or unhealthy meal.  If that doesn't have you running for the kale aisle in the grocery store, nothing will.

The other sections of the book deal with such topics as ingredients to look for (as well as those to avoid) in beauty products, advice on getting a good night's sleep (and the detrimental effects of not doing so), best practices for beauty based on the seasons, ways to make your home healthier and of course, the benefits of exercise.  There is a section on yoga practices (complete with photos!) and what each pose does to benefit the body (I don't care how beneficial it is, I still have no hope of achieving pyramid pose in this lifetime).  The final pillar in the book deals with attaining spiritual beauty including ways to be kind to yourself and stop negative thoughts and self-criticism. This section also includes helpful information on meditation and combating stress.

The book ends with some Radical Beauty recipes, although as with most recipes, there are plenty of ingredients that you are unlikely to find in your kitchen (garam masala? tamari? Anyone?).  Still, the book is very educational and inspiring, although it is so packed with suggestions that it would be difficult to follow all of them. If you're looking to improve your physical and emotional health, however, you can find plenty of ideas in this book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Radical Beauty from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pity the poor English royal family of 600 years ago.  Even if you were comfortably sitting on the throne, any number of sketchy relatives could be on the sidelines, quietly plotting your downfall.  You might think you were comfortably #1 in line for the crown, but if you had the misfortune of having your father die before you came of age, plenty of uncles and cousins would be ready to step in and "help" you to rule.  The fascinating series Britain's Bloody Crown takes a look at a turbulent time in English history that came to be known as The Wars of the Roses. This four-part series from Acorn Media is a mix of narration by historian Dan Jones and re-creations of events and battles from that unstable time in history, with several interesting historical documents thrown in for good measure.

The root of the trouble can be summed up with the title of Episode One: The Mad King.  Henry V had been a strong and vibrant ruler, who defeated and ruled most of France.  His son, Henry VI, was decidedly less regal and had no interest in messy things like battles.  That was fine while the Duke of Suffolk was alive to keep things in check, but after his death in 1450, the country was on the verge of collapse.  When a band of rioters breech the walls surrounding London, Henry flees the city.  His no-nonsense wife, Margaret of Anjou, takes control of the situation, along with Lord Somerset, who lost a lot of territory in France and came home to England.  The king's cousin, Richard, Duke of York, decides he is the man to run the country and comes to London with a small army to demand the king make him Protector of England.  There is something of a power struggle between the two factions of Queen Margaret and the Duke of York.  This continues off and on for many years -- the nobles don't want to be governed by a French woman, but the Duke of York tries to raise money by forcing the rich to give up some of their land, which doesn't endear him to Parliament, either.  Eventually the Duke of York is killed after chasing Margaret to Scotland and attempting to capture her.  While it would appear the Queen's side won, the divisions had already been sown that would result in more bloodshed over the next quarter century.

In Episode Two, The King Maker Must Die, the Duke of York's son takes the crown and becomes Edward IV.  Edward is still a teenager, and his closest advisor is Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick.  Edward relies on Warwick's counsel, and Warwick is feeling pretty confident about his status at court.  He goes to France to arrange a marriage between Edward and a French princess.  Meanwhile, Edward has gone behind Warwick's back and married Elizabeth Woodville.  She is a widowed mother of two, which would have been scandalous enough, but she brought with her a large and politically unconnected family. Edward immediately begins putting Elizabeth's relatives into advantageous positions and marrying them off to members of the aristocracy.  Once again, two sides form:  the king vs. Warwick.  Warwick goes to France and allies himself with the exiled Queen Margaret.  The two are eventually able to defeat Edward's forces and restore the weak King Henry VI to the throne.  But Henry is no more of a ruler this time than he was before, and Edward is soon able to return to the throne.

One of the most tragic events in English history is played out in Episode Three, The Princes Must Die.   After King Edward IV was returned to the throne, England enjoyed a period of stability.  Unfortunately, this didn't last.  When he died in 1483, there was yet another power struggle.  While his son, 12-year-old Edward V was the heir to the throne, the late king had apparently asked in his will that the boy's uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, be named as protector of the country until young Edward came of age.  The queen, and her Woodville clan, want the young king to be crowned immediately.  While a coronation date for the young king is set, in the meantime Richard sets about grabbing power himself.  He has young Edward and his brother imprisoned in the Tower of London, attempts to have them declared illegitimate, accuses loyal allies of treason and executes them, sets about killing the most troublesome and powerful Woodvilles, etc. The young princes disappear and  Richard can now have himself crowned king, but there are forces at work to challenge his claim.

The final episode, A Mother's Love, documents the life and behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future King Henry VII.  A 13 year old widow when she gave birth to her son in 1457, Margaret had to use her considerable intelligence to protect herself and her son.  Her late husband was a half-brother to the late King Henry VI, so her son has a tenuous claim on the throne.  Margaret marries two more times, the last time to Lord Thomas Stanley who was a rich and influential steward in Edward IV's household.  Margaret is constantly scheming to get her son's lands returned to him and is successful while Edward is alive, but after his death, she decides that Richard needs to be removed from the throne.  Because she has inherited much wealth, she sends money to fund an invasion to her son Henry, who has fled to France.  Henry is eventually able to return to England to challenge Richard for the crown at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  No one is too upset when the devious Richard is defeated.

I enjoyed seeing the people and events of this historical period come alive, and it was very interesting to hear the somewhat irreverent comments of Dan Jones as he explained the motivations that drove the various people to commit seemingly unthinkable actions "for the good of the country."  Jones argues that most of the people were motivated by the desire to protect England and to ensure that peace and stability were restored to the land, but the violence that occurred seemed to always get out of hand.  I was a bit surprised by some of the events (no doubt my lack of historical knowledge contributed to this!).  For instance, whenever someone wanted to challenge the sitting king or ruler, they would just throw together an army of 5,000 or 10,000 men and march toward battle.  I had to
wonder where all these soldiers were coming from.  I know jobs were likely hard to come by (particularly for the non-nobles out there), but I do wonder what would cause someone to throw his lot in with a person who was challenging the current king.  Maybe if they were on the winning side they'd be given lands or money, but it still seems like a risky proposition, particularly if you were on the losing side.  Additionally, it was a bit unclear how some people were able to throw their weight around and have people arrested, confined or executed without any authority.  For instance, before Richard was crowned king, he had several of the Woodvilles arrested and charged with treason -- on what authority???  And why wasn't the queen (widow of the old king and mother of the new one) able to stop it?  It's all very murky.  Events moved very quickly and those in favor one day could suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of events.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Britain's Bloody Crown from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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