Book Review: Cycle of Lies – Juliet Macur

cycle of liesTitle: Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong
Author: Juliet Macur
ISBN:9780062277220
Pages: 480
Release Date: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Biography
Source: Personal Copy

Summary

Lance Armstrong was once the American hero of cycling, brought down by his admission of doping. Or was he? Juliet Macur, a New York Times journalist who followed Armstrong’s career, gives us a biography of this controversial cycling star, once a hero, a successful comeback story, a triumph over cancer brought down by his willingness to do anything to win.

Review

I don’t make much of a secret of the fact that I hate Lance Armstrong. I’m a huge fan of cycling (the sport—while I’ll get on a spin bike regularly, you’ll rarely see me out and about on a bicycle), and Lance Armstrong almost singlehandedly brought that sport down. How? That’s what Juliet Macur chronicles in her fascinating and strange biography Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong.

Macur takes the reader back to Lance’s origins, to his relationship with his mother and various stepfathers, to discover the origins of his need to win at any cost in Cycle of Lies. The word “sociopath” has been whispered to describe Armstrong before, and in this case, it appears to be the truth. It’s chilling, the way Macur describes him, his lack of remorse and inability to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong in his life. Even to this day, he describes himself as a victim when, as Macur makes clear, he’s anything but. He’s a perpetrator of fraud; not the only one, of course, as doping has been a systematic issue in cycling for years, but the person who institutionalized it and made it clear that if you weren’t doping, you didn’t have a place on his team.

I normally read nonfiction books in pieces, simply because they read slower than fiction, but Cycle of Lies was a book I read cover to cover in one sitting. Macur’s writing is sharp, her pace breathless, and her research is thorough. I’m a die-hard fan of cycling, so it’s easy to understand why I inhaled this book. But I believe it also would appeal to any person curious about Armstrong’s impact on the sport, and how things ended up the way they did, without any real background knowledge of cycling. Macur makes sure her book is accessible to any level of cycling literacy; the impact is in the narrative, the story she tells, rather than the knowledge the reader does or does not possess. And what an impact it has.

There were times while I was reading Cycle of Lies that I was so mad, I could spit—Macur’s in-depth journalism isn’t afraid to get emotional and pull those strings. She never resorts to gimmicks, though. She puts together an ambitious story, a portrait of a man who needed to win at any cost and what it cost all of us in return.

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Book Review: Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary – Anita Anand

Sophia coverTitle: Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
Author: Anita Anand
ISBN: 9781632860811
Pages: 432
Release Date: January 13, 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography, Cultural (South Asian)
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary:

Sophia Duleep Singh was a princess, daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the deposed leader of the Indian Sikh empire, but Sophia was more British than Indian. Born in England and goddaughter to Queen Victoria, Sophia lived the life of a British aristocrat, but she always knew that she was different. A trip to India in 1907 when she was 31 transformed Sophia completely, turning this genteel, quiet young woman into a fiery revolutionary, a suffragette who was willing to give up everything for the right to vote.

Snapshot Review:

Anita Anand’s Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary takes a broad view of Sophia’s life, putting it into the proper context and helping the reader understand the history behind her. This is an absolutely fascinating historical biography that also manages to be compulsively readable, a difficult feat that Anand accomplishes expertly.

Full Review:

I’d read a fictionalization of the end of the Sikh empire at the hands of the British in Indu Sundaresan’s The Mountain of Light, but I find that when I am intrigued by fiction, it always leads me to seek out nonfiction on the same topic. Therefore, when I heard about Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, I was immediately intrigued. A historical biography about an Indian woman who was a feminist and fought for Indians’ rights? This book checked so many of my personal boxes for what I look for in my reading, I knew I had to get to it immediately.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary was an absolutely captivating biography. I was hooked from the very first page. Anand chose a broad lens to view her subject through, rather than a narrow one, so you get a lot more than just Sophia’s history. Anand provides a lot of context for Sophia’s life, starting before she was born to fully understand the fall of the Sikh empire. When Sophia becomes involved in the struggle for the women’s vote, Anand discusses much more than just Sophia’s role in it. As a result, this book is a rich, colorful history of a tumultuous time period. You get a great sense of who Sophia was, to be sure, but it’s so nice to see her placed in context and understand the larger history surrounding her. It was a deliberate choice, to be sure, and one that I appreciated.

Anand also focuses quite a bit on Sophia herself, as, after all, this is a biography. She was a quiet woman who avoided the spotlight for much of her life. Her life was tragic in many ways; she lost so much of her family at a young age, plus she lived much of her life alone. It makes sense why she began to reluctantly seek the spotlight. Once Sophia found causes that were near to her heart, it makes sense that she threw herself into them. Anand really does a great job with Sophia; the reader really comes to know her over the course of the book and share Anand’s obvious affection for this remarkable woman.

This biography fills a real hole in history; I’ve always wondered what happened to all the men and women who were disinherited after the rise of the British Raj; now I have a better idea of that. I keep singing its praises, and for good reason: despite its length, this is a book I could have read in one sitting. It’s compulsively readable; not for a second is it boring, dry, or what you’d normally think of when you hear “historical biography.” It’s jam packed with fascinating information, and despite the fact that it’s so early into 2015, I have a feeling this book will be making an appearance on my best of list for the year.

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Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King – Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be King cover Title: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt
Author: Kara Cooney
ISBN: 9780307956767
Pages: 320
Release Date: October 14, 2014
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary:

In this biography of Hatshepsut, pharaoh of Egypt, author Kara Cooney pieces together the clues from this remarkable woman’s reign while also trying to fill in the gaps when history doesn’t provide us with answers.

Snapshot Review:

A fascinating look at an Egyptian leader almost lost to history, The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt provides a fresh interpretation of this influential woman through a feminist lens.

Full Review:

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt is a fascinating biography of a woman who defied all gender conventions before we even knew that was possible. Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt were men, really with no exception. The country was ruled through a principle of divine rule; women weren’t even in the equation. The amazing thing that Hatshepsut did was that she ruled Egypt as Pharaoh; not as regent or on behalf of someone else. She singlehandedly changed the calculus, but despite that (or, as Cooney conjectures, because of it), she was lost to history.

It’s clear that Cooney did quite a bit of research in putting The Woman Who Would Be King together. There are a lot of holes, but Cooney makes it very clear whenever she is assuming or guessing, rather than providing information based on concrete evidence, and her interpretation is usually quite convincing. The author has a passion for Hatshepsut, and that enthusiasm makes it onto every page. It makes for an engaging, fascinating read.

Cooney provides an intriguing look at how Hatshepsut came to power in The Woman Who Would Be King, and she provides a feminist perspective to Hatshepsut’s rise. “What may consign Hatshepsut to obscurity is our inability to appreciate and value honest, naked, female ambition, not to mention actual power wielded properly by a woman,” Cooney says. She (convincingly) argues that Hatshepsut’s downfall, the reason that most evidence of her has been eradicated, is that it was unseemly for a woman to want power for power’s sake. Women must reluctantly accept power; to seek it out, to have ambition, is unwomanly and unacceptable. It’s a great lens through which to view Hatshepsut’s reign, especially because Cooney does an incredible job showing us just how exacting Hatshepsut was in her manipulation of the people, politics, and religion around her in order to come to power.

This biography focuses on how Hatshepsut acquired and kept power, rather than what she accomplished in her reign. This might leave some Ancient Egypt fans wanting, but for anyone looking for a well-researched and compelling biography of a singular woman who has been virtually forgotten to history, this is absolutely the book you should pick up. Cooney’s feminist framework for The Woman Who Would Be King makes for an engaging, informative read that any nonfiction reader will enjoy.

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Book Review: Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space – Lynn Scherr

Sally Ride coverTitle: Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space
Author: Lynn Sherr
ISBN: 9781476725765
Pages: 400
Release Date: June 3, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, Space
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary:

In this in-depth biography of the late Dr. Ride, America’s first woman in space, journalist and friend Lynn Scherr tells Ride’s remarkable story. Scherr explores Dr. Ride’s professional life, from tennis player to astronaut and beyond, but also discusses Ride’s personal life, much of which wasn’t known to the public until after Ride’s death.

Snapshot Review:

An in-depth biography of the late Dr. Ride, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space is a well-written and well-researched account of the celebrated astronaut that will help readers come to know and understand this complicated woman.

Full Review:

We all know the basics of Dr. Sally Ride’s life—she was the first American woman in space, something that propelled her to celebrity status. But who was Dr. Ride really? It’s not an easy question to ask, and the answer is murky at best. But Lynn Scherr does a great job regardless, giving the reader a portrait of this intensely private woman who lived so much of her life in the public eye.

Scherr starts at the beginning in Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, following Sally through her childhood and educational years. Scherr had the cooperation and support of those closest to Sally—her family, friends, colleagues, partners, and more—so the reader really gets a comprehensive picture of what Ride was like during her formative years. It’s easy to see the brash, confident woman becoming the astronaut that we all celebrated, especially as she shattered glass ceilings left and right, determined to pursue science, no matter how much her professors discouraged her.

The biography follows Ride throughout her career, showing her as disciplined and determined in her professional life. Sally Ride was everything young women everywhere hoped her to be. After flying on the shuttle twice, Dr. Ride participated in the investigation into Challenger’s explosion, trying to make the shuttle safer for her and her colleagues. Her retirement from NASA followed, and that is, it seems, when her real life began. Dr. Ride was free to pursue her real passion: bringing young women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. It’s amazing how hard Dr. Ride worked towards this goal and how many young women she inspired into following in her footsteps.

Dr. Ride’s professional life is where things are a bit more muddled in Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, and not because Lynn Scherr did a less-than-stellar job. It’s actually interesting that despite the fact that Scherr and Ride were close friends, the author doesn’t try to present a rosy picture of the former astronaut. Scherr acknowledges her biases, but then tries to present the most realistic picture she can, and it’s appreciated. Readers can really feel like they get to know Dr. Ride and come to understand who she was.

No, the issue with Dr. Ride’s personal life is the surprising revelation upon her death: that she’d been in a 27-year relationship with a woman, one that her closest friends (including the author) were unaware of. It’s incredibly sad that Ride thought she had to hide this intimate part of herself, that she thought it would hold her back professionally (and even sadder, that she was probably right about it.) Scherr illuminates Ride’s personal life as much as one can, given how private the late Dr. Ride was, and does an exceptional job with it.

If you’re interested at all in biographies, then Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space is absolutely a book worth picking up. Those fellow fans of astronaut biographies will appreciate the depth of this book: Scherr mines every source available. While many astronaut biographies and memoirs feel one-dimensional, Ride’s is colorful and vibrant, full of the personality and imperfection that made up the woman we so admire. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the giants of American history, and it’s good to know that Dr. Ride’s legacy lives on through her work with young women (and men!) in bringing American youth into STEM fields.

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Book Review: The Good Spy – Kai Bird

The Good Spy cover

Title: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames Author: Kai Bird ISBN: 9780307889751 Pages: 448 Release Date: May 20, 2014 Publisher: Crown Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History Source: Publisher Rating: 4 out of 5 Summary: Robert Ames was a CIA operative who had a unique understanding of and interest in Middle East history and culture. Over […]

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Book Review: Elizabeth of York – Alison Weir

Elizabeth of York cover

Title: Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World Author: Alison Weir ISBN: 9780345521361 Pages: 608 Release Date: December 3, 2013 Publisher: Ballantine Books Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography Source: Publisher Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Summary: In this definitive biography, historian Alison Weir takes a close look at Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry […]

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Book Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn – Susan Bordo [TSS]

Title: The Creation of Anne Boleyn Author: Susan Bordo ISBN: 9780547328188 Pages: 368 Release Date: April 9, 2013 Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Genre: History, Biography, Non-Fiction Source: Publisher Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Summary: In her part-biography and part-history, Susan Bordo examines the cultural impact that Anne Boleyn, the first queen in English history to […]

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Book Review: The Maid and the Queen – Nancy Goldstone [TSS]

Title: The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc Author: Nancy Goldstone ISBN: 9780670023332 Pages: 320 Release Date: March 29, 2012 Publisher: Viking Adult Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Biography Source: Publisher Rating: 4 out of 5 Summary: Though the story of Joan of Arc is well known, it’s less clear how an […]

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