It is the summer of 1919 and the Windy City burns again. This time with racial hatred and corrupt politicians. Read more at my blog…
At Home: A Short History of Private Life is Bill Bryson’s answer to his own work, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which was about basically the entire universe*. What’s the opposite of the history of everything? Apparently the history of just one place: the home.
*I haven’t read it yet and maybe never will, because he talks about the supervolcano in it, and just . . . no. I can’t deal with the supervolcano. LA LA LA.
Bryson and his family live in a country parsonage in England, and Bryson became curious first about the history of his own home, and then logically, about the history of homes in general. We spend so much time thinking and writing about the big events in history, the wars and famines and political upheavals, but very little time thinking about the history of the objects and small places we encounter in our everyday lives. It’s amazing the amount of history bound up in something as common as salt, for instance, or our mattresses, or the dining table, etc. As he states in the book, “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
As always, Bryson is delightful. He obviously takes such pleasure in uncovering these small, almost forgotten moments, and he always does so with affection for even the most unscrupulous of his subjects. There was so much in this book that I feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. It seems like every other page I would be shocked into saying something like, “What? Really? That’s where that came from?” I’m sure I will never be able to remember it all, but it was damn fun reading all the same. There was a bit in the middle when he went on and on about architecture and architects when I was rather bored (apparently I don’t like reading about architects, which is something I’ve just learned about myself), but for the most part everything in here was great. I listened to it on audibook, which was a good choice, I think. The only thing about the audiobook: I was a little thrown by Bryson’s accent. He’s American by birth but has spent decades with an English wife, living in England, and it ends up sounding like his accent is having an identity crisis. This didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book. It was just a bit strange.
Still didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, but it’s pretty hard to top a book about Australia, honestly, because that place is CRAZY.
I’m pretty sure I saw this recommended here on Cannonball Read, so thank you to whoever mentioned it. It’s a nifty mix of history, sociology, and science, with a smattering of that super-fashionable sort of Big Idea Meta Thinking Furturism stuff that TED talks are based on. The latter turns me off – there’s a neatness to that kind of thinking that I find a little hinky – but the book is such an enjoyable read, and Johnson for the most part maintains a lightness of touch with his ‘theory of urban networks’ thesis.
Next time you enjoy a glass of tap water, or have a shower, or flush a toilet, give up thanks to Dr. John Snow* and also the Rev. Henry Whitehead, for their work in proving that cholera is a waterborne disease. Snow’s (literally) groundbreaking work came about with a devastating cholera epidemic hit Golden Square in Soho in 1854. Johnson creates a vivid sense of what central London was like in Victorian times, drawing heavily on Dicken’s angry depictions of children in poverty, making the point that London then was the beginning of the modern city as we know it – but also a completely different, alien world.
Reading this armed me with lots of fascinating facts about poo, which is always dandy for a certain kind of after dinner crowd. And having just seen a performance piece based on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, made me that much more in awe of my adopted home. No matter what Boris Johnson does to London, it’s seen worse plagues than him, and survived. Two days ago I walked through Soho in the sun, looking at the spot where the Broad St. water pump used to stand, and got shivers.
The last chapter does take off from the facts about Snow’s discovery in to a wider view of the oncoming future, what with megacities, super viruses, germ terrorism, and global warming to contend with. I’m enough of a wuss that I skimmed it. But the story of how the waterborne idea was proved, and the consequences of that work, was gripping.
*Not that one. He knew something.
Described as a young adult novel, The Eagle of the Ninth is written by one of the finest historical fiction writers I think I’ve ever read, and is worthy of the attention of youth and adults alike. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote her Roman Britain trilogy, of which this book is the first, in the 1950s, and her books’ gradual disappearance from the shelves of libraries and classrooms is a tragedy. Her plots are thrilling and well-crafted, full of action and pathos, and her attention to the details of the ancient period about which she writes—whether it be the food and clothing, the buildings and temples, battle strategy and politics, family relations or the complex social order– is as exquisite as her language.
This is the story of the young Roman centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, who has been deployed around 150 AD to Britain to man one of the Roman fortresses. He is Cohort Commander of 600 well-trained troops from Gaul (ancient France), and unbeknownst to him, the tribes of the North that Rome is trying to subjugate are plotting an uprising. Marcus has chosen to be deployed to Britain in honor of his beloved father, who had commanded the famous Ninth Legion and whose several thousand strong force had disappeared into a Caledonian (Scottish) mist many years earlier, and was never heard from again. Marcus acquits himself well in stopping the uprising, but takes a near-lethal wound that forces him to muster out of the Legion and which destroys his dream of rising to the top. He spends a lengthy time recuperating at the British home of his father’s much older brother, where he buys a defeated gladiator named Esca as his personal slave, who then becomes his closest friend.
When Marcus learns that the missing Ninth Legion’s Roman Eagle, a golden standard assigned to every Roman Legion, is rumored to have turned up in a tribal shrine way in the hostile north, he and the northern-born Esca volunteer to seek out the story of the Ninth Legion’s disappearance and, if possible, to retrieve the Roman Eagle. Their quest is both thrilling and terrifying as Marcus and Esca go “undercover” among the suspicious northern tribes, learning a great deal about the customs of these barbarians that Rome is so determined to “civilize,” and ultimately uncovering the truth about the 9th. When Marcus and Esca’s true purpose is discovered, they are in a race for their lives that is breathtaking.
In the mood for 2,000-year-old thrills and chills? Read Sutcliff’s trilogy and spread the word.
If only the Yugo were the worst thing we knew about the former Yugoslavia.
The Yugo was both a great idea terribly executed, and a terrible idea that was much more successful than it deserved. In the 1980’s a few people saw a hole in the American car market – a need for a cheap compact car. One of those people was Malcolm Bricklin. Lets just get this out of the way, if Malcolm Bricklin asks you for money, only give him what you can afford to loose. You are a lot more likely to have a good time than you are to get rich. Let’s also get this out of the way, the Yugo is not the worst car in history. The worst car in history couldn’t meet US import safety standards. The Yugo was just in the wrong place at the right time. Of cars sold in the US, it was at the bottom in terms of quality, but was better than many cars that were rejected by US safety regulators.
The Yugo was the state car of Yugoslavia – originally based off blueprints from Fiat and produced by Yugoslav manufacturer, Zastava. It was a basic, no frills mode of transportation. Bricklin discovered the car in London when negotiations to import another car fell apart. The negotiations fell apart because Bricklin’s reputation preceded him. By the time Bricklin got involved with the Yugo, he had a reputation as a flamboyant entrepreneur, better at vision than business. His vision for success was rarely based in reality.
Despite the involvement of Bricklin, this wasn’t an enterprise destined to fail. There were some very good reasons for bringing the Yugo to the US market. For a variety of reasons, another Japanese car could not be brought to the US market. The Yugo needed a lot of work before it would meet minimum US safety standards. However, Zastava was willing to put in the work. On the downside, as a Communist economy, Yugoslavia’s industry was motivated more by full employment than efficiency. On the upside, the work force was used to working long hours and were willing to make the changes needed to improve quality. The PR and advertising people in the US were able to spin some of the negatives into positives – such as highlighting the handcrafting that went into the Yugo manufacture. Although described as a positive, the “handcrafting” resulted in unreliable quality and pieces that didn’t quite fit together.
The Yugo was introduced to the US at a time when Yugoslavia had just received a bumper of positive press. The successful 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo meant that Americans had heard of Yugoslavia in a positive way. Yugoslavia’s political distance from Moscow made them the “good communists.” Bricklin and company did a lot to build positive buzz before the Yugo arrived in the US. It was shaping up to be a wildly successful launch. The problem was partly that the quality of the Yugo was over sold. When people actually got hold of the Yugo, they were disappointed. In addition, the Yugo was an easy target for comedians. Yugos became equated with losers, alienating the car from one of their natural demographics – teens wanting a first car.
How many teenagers fit in a Yugo? Who knows? No teenager would be caught dead in one.
The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History is a great read – enlightening, entertaining, and thought provoking. The book touches on the bloody conflict that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia. The Yugo came out about the time I was learning to drive and thinking about a car of my own. I ended up with a used car that put the Yugo to shame. You couldn’t run the air conditioner and drive at the same time in my car – affectionately known as the blue chicken bomb. I didn’t think about the Yugo again until Michael Moore used a Yugo and a pizza to try to bring peace to the Balkans. He drove a Yugo back and forth between the Yugoslav (Serbian) consulate and the Croatian consulate in DC using a pizza to attempt an equitable land division. Moore also asked who would fix his Yugo and got officials form both consulates to roll up their sleeves. It didn’t bring peace, but it was a rare light moment in a conflict known for inhumane brutality. When that episode aired in 1994 (8 years after the Yugo arrived in the United States), I was in DC – motivated by the human rights violations in Bosnia to go to law school. But that’s a different story.
By the way, I’ve been “watching” the Fast and The Furious movies while writing this review. It’s appropriate in so many ways. The pieces don’t fit and the movies are more interested in full employment than efficiency.
Title: Salt: A World History
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Fun Fact: When mummies (preserved with salt) were moved into Cairo in the 1800’s, they were taxed as salted fish.
Review Summary: Mostly an engagingly written overview of history organized around salt, but with a few too many details of specific recipes and cod fishing.
Writing a world history organized by the way everything connects back to salt was a surprisingly brilliant idea. Because salt was a strategic concern in the organization of many countries and their wars, it’s possible to touch on many of the most interesting periods in history by talking about salt. This could very easily have led to a disorganized book, but each chapter focused on a specific country and the book generally moves forward in time. Together, that was enough to give the book a cohesive feel.
I picked up The Favored Daughter after seeing an interview with Koofi on The Daily Show. She was promoting her book, speaking about her plans to continue in Afghanistan’s government, and the importance of fighting for her country. She was calm and serious and you could tell that she lives her life with clear purpose. She doesn’t have time to waste time, especially knowing that people want to kill her. She plans to run for president and knows her life will continue to be in danger. John Stewart was clearly in awe of her and his sincerity and respect for her story made me want to get her book.
I wanted to know why she is willing to die for her country.
I heard Stephen Greenblatt speak about his book Swerve about a month ago. His presentation was more a university lecture than a book promotion; yet incredibly interesting and the amount of information he shared was overwhelming. I haven’t snagged that book yet, but I had also seen snippets of Greenblatt on Shakespeare Uncovered so I thought I’d read Will in the World first.
The subtitle of the book is “How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.” Greenblatt takes what is known about Shakespeare’s life (not a lot really) and what is known about the historical period and finds links to these facts in the plays and sonnets. What is known is that his father was successful in Stratford up to a point and then fell into debt.Shakespeare had what appeared to be a loveless marriage (he expressly disinherits his wife Anne in his will). He had three children, his son Hamnet died at about age 12. He was also a successful businessman, making money at the theater while others failed and invested that money in land back in Stratford. What we don’t have is any direct communication from him, no personal letters, nothing about himself. All that is left are his literary works. Greenblatt uses what is known and finds references in his plays and sonnets to show us Shakespeare’s world.
This book fit well with the book I recently read: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Her books are set during the reign of Henry VIII and his break with the Catholic Church. Shakespeare lived during Elizabeth’s reign, during which this transformation was still evolving. Conspiracies against the queen were continually uncovered. Suspected traitors were tried, brutally executed and their heads spiked on the London Bridge. What this might have taught Shakespeare was to “keep control of yourself; do not fall into the hands of your enemies be smart, tough, and realistic; master strategies of concealment and evasion; keep your head on your shoulders.” Greenblatt demonstrates that Shakespeare did all of these things to great success.
Greenblatt never directly addresses the claims that Shakespeare was not in fact the author of his body of work, but does devote a few chapters about how Shakespeare likely was educated and how he might have started acting and writing. Greenblatt asserts that his skill for writing for the stage came from being an actor himself. Shakespeare had a lot of material to draw from: other plays, legends, history books in circulation. He borrowed heavily from many sources, which apparently was the norm. (not a lot of copyright litigation back then). What made his work good was that he knew how to write for his audiences. What may have made them last is that his audiences were not so different than us.
There’s a lot more, including how Shakespeare evolved as a playwright. This is a book for people who really like Shakespeare or have a strong interest in Elizabethan culture. If neither interests you much, don’t read this book.
Charles C. Mann begins his book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Createdwith a discussion of his vegetable garden. Thinking about heirloom tomatoes seeds and how they had originated in the Americas, but then journeyed all over the world — Japan, Italy, the Ukraine and many other countries — to come back to this continent got the author thinking about global trade, travel, and cultural exchange.
At the same time he was tracing the origins of his tomato crop Mann became interested in the Columbian Exchange, a process first written about by historian Alfred W. Crosby. The Columbian Exchange is the worldwide exchange of culture, plants, animals, people, and even disease between the Old and New Worlds. His thoughts on crops and research on the Columbian Exchange was the beginning and the basis of his entertainingly written and very well-researched 1493.
Vintage has recently released the book in paperback. At 700+ pages it is a dense read, but never a dull one. One story, one history, one anecdote leads to another. Before the reader knows it, he or she has embarked on a journey with Columbus, or Colón, to Hispaniola. Then with John Rolfe (and earthworms) to Jamestown, Virginia to learn about tobacco. Tobacco also takes us to China, where potatoes (sweet and white) then take up the story as the location shifts back to Europe. Around and around Mann follows crops and disease and cultural exchanges. Voyages that may have begun as a Eurocentric and even mythical search for gold and silver resulted in the exchange of goods and crops that we now take for granted, but were once foreign to this continent.
In 1491 Mann wrote that the indigenous peoples of the South Americas were more sophisticated than had been previously believed. As compelling as its predecessor, in1493 Mann takes things a little further, describing how early trade and cultural interaction have led to our current global economy. 1493 is chock-full of photos and illustrations to help punctuate Mann’s historical travelogue. The last 180 pages are full of the author’s notes, credits, and citations.
Previous histories have posed that European firepower is responsible for the conquest of the Americas, but Mann cogently argues that the smallest of creatures — micro-organisms — may actually be responsible for the success of our current culture. A successful tobacco crop meant more for the survival of the early colonists in Jamestown than boatloads of soldiers or settlers. According to Mann’s theory, similar micro-organisms played a part in the colonists’ victory in the American Revolution, and the slave trade in Africa.
Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, and has written articles for National Geographic, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and theWashington Post. There is much to be learned in 1493 about our country and its origins. Together with 1491 Mann has shone a previously unseen light on the culture, and now global impact, of early American inhabitants. One wonders what more we could learn if he decides to keep going, into the turn of the 15th century and beyond.
Article first published as Book Review: 1493 by Charles C. Mann on Blogcritics.
You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e
I can’t remember the last time I read an honest to God biography, so either it’s been a really long time or whatever it was was so unmemorable that my brain has erased it from my memory banks. Last autobiography? Easy: Benjamin Franklin. And I read memoirs all the time. But biographies, man, they’re a different beast. Especially the ones whose brave soul authors are hell bent on cataloguing every last verifiable moment possible of people who lived thousands of years ago. Stacy Schiff is one such soul, and Cleopatra, last Queen of Egypt, her muse.
There are two ways to evaluate this book. The first is one of which I am not capable: as a scholar who is familiar with other previously existing works of scholarship and research on Cleopatra and the last years of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. I was vaguely familiar with the story of Cleopatra when I started this book — although I was apparently even more ignorant about her than I realized, seeing as how I didn’t even know she had children, let alone had children fathered by two of the greatest men of the age, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Other reviews I’ve read imply that Schiff covers nothing new in her presentation/analysis of the known facts about Cleopatra’s life, or that said interpretations are also erroneous. I have no basis with which to judge her on this.
Instead, I will make do with what I’ve got and evaluate Cleopatra: A Life as a layperson previously unfamiliar with the subject matter. Looked at from that perspective, I’d say Schiff succeeds. She takes us from the hazy matter of Cleopatra’s birth (historians are not entirely sure who her mother was, for example) through her adolescence, where she was raised with brothers and sisters in a family not un-accustomed to murder and inter-marriage, all the way up to the ramifications of her death. The text is chock full of wonderful details, and Schiff does an excellent job placing all of Cleopatra’s actions within the context of her culture (and often cultures that clashed with her own, most often the Romans). She is also careful to acknowledge places where the historical record has blanks. In those instances, she either makes educated guesses (always letting us know that’s what they are), or, to paraphrase something I said in a Goodreads status update, in lieu of more concrete evidence of Cleopatra’s life, Schiff provides us with such detail of her surroundings that you can place her there in your imaginations.
My only real complaint is that, especially at the beginning, she just kind of jumps in to the material and hops from place to place with some unclear transitions. I was often confused as to what point in history she was talking about, but this problem soon disappeared after about the first chapter. All in all, though, this was a really good read that manages to accomplish it’s main goal. I felt it was important to Schiff that she try to redirect the cultural conversation about Cleopatra and turn her back from a woman who used her sexuality to manipulate men, to a competent and beloved ruler who presided over one of the greatest kingdoms in the ancient world.
I would also recommend the audiobook. Robin Miles is a veteran theater actor and her voice was a nice vehicle for Schiff’s words. In fact, this might be how I read biographies in the future as sometimes it’s hard without a narrative to interest me emotionally to pick books like this up, even though I enjoy them while I’m reading.