Monthly Archives: June 2014

Jonas Jonasson, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

(2014-05-17 001)Title: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Author: Jonas Jonasson ; translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury

Publication Information: New York: Hyperion, c2012

ISBN: 978-1-4013-2464-3

Library of Congress Classification: PT9877.2.O537

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Older people–Fiction

I wasn’t sure that I would even like this book. I got it free from BEA a few years ago, and it’s been sitting on a shelf in my library. Rather than just give it away, I decided to try and read it. I was pleasantly surprised.

The main character, Allan Karlsson, is the 100-year-old man. He’s stuck in a nursing home, and the home is preparing to celebrate his 100th birthday. Everyone is in a festive mood except Allan, who slips out his window and escapes, taking a bus and getting off several miles away in a very small town.

And thus begins one of the funniest journeys any protagonist takes in fiction. We also learn about Allan as the chapters alternate between the past and the present. Allan becomes a demolitions expert in much demand. He meets many famous people on his life journey to the present, and has very many adventures.

(There’s at least one historical inaccuracy. Allan is talking to Truman about the atomic bomb before FDR died. Truman knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until after FDR had died. They just didn’t keep vice-presidents in the loop like they do now.)

Allan’s happy-go-lucky present life involves a series of misinterpretations of events that brings him and his friends–which includes an elephant–to a happy place at the end of the book.

I laughed out loud at some of Allan’s antics. I’d recommend this one.


Tony Thorne, Countess Dracula: the Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess

(2014-05-28 001)Title: Countess Dracula: the Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess

Author: Tony Thorne

Publication Information: London: Bloomsbury, 1998, c1997

ISBN: 0-747536414 (978-0747-53641-3)

Library of Congress Classification: DB999.S283

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Báthory, Erzsébet, 1560-1614
Judicial error–Hungary
Hungary–History–Turkish occupation, 1526-1699
Sávár (Hungary)–History
Transylvania (Romania)–History

There are times that I will write a review for a book that I read years ago. This is one of them. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I had to order this book from England. It cost me $62.70 for a paperback through Alibris. To the best of my knowledge, this book was never released in the United States. Here’s an example of why scholars and researchers need to go beyond what is published in their native countries and languages when exploring their interests. And what is so great about this book?

Tony Thorne proves that Elisabeth Balthory was railroaded.

She was not a “blood countess,” bathing in the blood of virgins. She was a victim of circumstance, a pawn in a much bigger political struggle. Her reputation was deliberately demeaned and destroyed in a successful attempt to seize the Balthory estates.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the conquest of Greece and the rest of the Balkans was opened. The Kingdom of Hungary blocked the further Turkish advance into Europe–until the Battle of Mohács in 1526.

Suffice to say that the Turks made war on the Hungarians, and at Mohács they not only killed the Hungarian king but decimated the nobility. The kingdom simply collapsed, which was quickly overrun by the Turks. This is when Vienna was first put under siege by the Turks. A “rump” Hungary, shaped like the letter C, was all that remained of the kingdom, which was under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria. Now the Austro-German Hapsburgs claimed the throne of Hungary, which did not please the native Hungarian nobility.

In the time of Elisabeth György Thurzó was appointed as Palatine of Hungary to govern in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor. Many of the Hungarian nobility looked to the Hungarian prince of Transylvania as the possible unifier of the Hungarians and the next king of Hungary. Who was this prince? Stephen Bathory–Elisabeth’s nephew.

The Bathory estates were vast. Elisabeth had administered them while her husband went off to war several times; there is evidence that Elisabeth was an able administrator, since there were no problems when her husband returned to take control. With his death, Elisabeth became the sole possessor, a woman alone with a vast fortune and a nephew that could possibly become a problem to the Habsburg emperor, to whom Thurzó owed his position.

We can add misogyny to the mix. Thurzó seized Elisabeth’s castle, found “improprieties” in the place, drew up charges, tortured her staff for confessions, and had them quickly executed, imprisoning Elisabeth in her castle for her “crimes.” She was walled up in her bedroom. It was then the stories of the “blood countess” began to circulate. The Balthory estates were now held by Thurzó.

The idea of Stephen Balthory restoring the Hungarian kingdom was just a dream. He was insane and eventually killed, at which point Elisabeth was simply no longer important. Her son was a minor; her two daughters were married, and their inheritances were released to them. Thurzó admitted no wrong; who cared about Elisabeth? So she was allowed to languish, forgotten by all except for the terrible stories told about her that just grew after her death.

Thorne researched the Hungarian court records and found quite a bit of irregularities in her case. No one else outside of Thurzó’s group was able to question the witnesses because they had all been executed immediately. A Hungarian lawyer, a descent of Thurzó, looked into the case and said that the evidence presented would not stand up in a modern court of law; had Thurzó followed the law he would not have had a case.

So the next time you are watching History Channel schlock around Halloween about the “Blood Countess,” remember what was done to poor Elisabeth. Let’s right an historic wrong.

David Sider, The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum

(2014-03-09 001)Title: The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum

Author: David Sider

Publication Information: Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, c2005

ISBN: 978-0-89236-799-3 (0-89236-799-7)

Library of Congress Classification: DG70.H5

Dewey Decimal Classification: 091

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Villa of the Papyri (Herculaneum)
Herculaneum (Extinct city)—Antiquities
Piso Caesoninus, Lucius Calpurnius—Library
Private libraries—Italy—Herculaneum (Extinct city)
Manuscripts, Greek (Papyri)—Italy—Herculaneum (Extinct city)

This book is somewhat mistitled. It isn’t about the Villa of the Papyri itself, but the scrolls found inside the building, many of them in the library. The history of how these scrolls were opened and read is what much of the book is about.

When the villa was first found, the workers first thought that the lumps of black were coal until someone noticed writing on one of them. It was only after many of these “useless” pieces were discarded did the reality that they had found a library of charred scrolls sink  in. After this, the attempts to open the scrolls are told in horrifying detail. Many scrolls were destroyed by the crazy ways that were tested Finally, the first lengthy method was deemed the best; all unwrapping machines are based on this 18th century prototype.

Sider goes into gory detail about how each scroll has to have two wedges cut out of each side in order to unroll the scrolls into long pieces. Several outer layers were completely charred by the volcanic eruption as were the layers of scroll at the center; these sections are discarded. What are left are documents that have had their beginnings and endings lost to time. Sider reminds us that the only reason we still have these scrolls is because of the eruption. Otherwise, these scrolls would have been completely  lost. This is the only ancient library that has survived into the present day.

And what exactly are these scrolls of? Roman libraries were usually divided into two areas: Latin and Greek. This is the Greek section that was made up of the writings of Philodemus, a Epicurean philosopher whose works were mostly lost before the scrolls were found. There’s a strong possibility that the villa was owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. As Sider points out, there are two lower floors of the villa that have not been excavated. It is quite possible that the Latin part of the library is still buried. Sider wonders if there’s a scroll with letters from Julius Caesar himself somewhere in the hard rock. Only excavation and careful unwrapping of the scrolls will tell.

This is a well-written, interesting book for anyone who is interested in ancient libraries and learning. The documentation of what was done to many scrolls before a good way was discovered to unwrap them is unsettling; logic and patience had given way to sensationalism and impatience, the quick ways to unwrap the scrolls destroyed many.

A great book.