Frankly, the most exciting thing about this book is the title. When it's got a title like that, you wouldn't think it's possible for a book to be mindFrankly, the most exciting thing about this book is the title. When it's got a title like that, you wouldn't think it's possible for a book to be mindnumbingly dull. AND YET.
I think my biggest problem is that there's so much detail, so many backstories to wade through for what felt like EVERYONE AT VERSAILLES, so much context, that I finished the book and still had relatively little idea of what the Affair of the Poisons actually WAS. Because to me? The book felt a lot like this: 1. Introduction 2. Endless chapters establishing what life at Louis XIV's court was like, and establishing that Louis would basically sleep with anything in a skirt. Except during Lent when he was suddenly struck by a wave of "crap, God made me king, I should probably obey the commandments once in a while". 3. The trials of people accused of being involved in the Affair of the Poisons. 4. What happened to those who weren't tortured to death.
Like...?!?!?!?! I feel like I was missing a massive chunk of the story. I understand that the author was limited to what's survived in the historical record, which is mostly court documents, but basically what I got was that someone was accused of poisoning their family members to get their inheritances and they were tortured and name dropped a few other people with suggestions that they'd performed abortions (not surprising considering all the bed-hopping going on in the aristocracy) and the whole thing spiralled out of control from there?? But I'm not entirely sure. Maybe if I'd read the Wikipedia page first, it would have made more sense...
But on the whole, it was overly descriptive and incredibly dry reading. ...more
3.5 stars. Look, this is a very well researched and very interesting introduction to the use of opium and its derivatives as medicine from its introdu3.5 stars. Look, this is a very well researched and very interesting introduction to the use of opium and its derivatives as medicine from its introduction to Europe until the early twentieth century. But at the same time? It drove me ABSOLUTELY BONKERS because the layout was just bizarre from start to finish. There were little quotes on the inside edges of each page, next to the text, which was ridiculously distracting. There were images all over the place, and captions for those images and half the time? The actual text got lost in all the clutter. And when the text wasn't getting lost, it was hard to focus on because there were so many other things to look at on the page. So yeah. It would have been a 4 star book, but the layout was so distracting that I had to knock off half a star. ...more
This book is, in effect, two different stories. One is Spiegelman recounting his father's experiences as a Polish Jew during the Second World War. TheThis book is, in effect, two different stories. One is Spiegelman recounting his father's experiences as a Polish Jew during the Second World War. The other is Spiegelman dealing with his aging father, who's often demanding, penny pinching, and cantankerous. Spiegelman struggles to relate to his father's experiences, and therefore they have a difficult time communicating.
The art is often simple, but it's incredibly effective. The two stories are interwoven beautifully, the sections set in the 1970s and 1980s providing some humour and a much needed break from the atrocities of Vladek's experiences during the war, from losing his two year old son to finding himself in Auschwitz after a failed attempt at being smuggled out of Poland and into Hungary.
There are many Holocaust stories out there, and they're all important. This one, however, offers such a story in a striking format that will likely attract those who usually steer away from such stories. ...more
3.5 stars. An interesting but not particularly in-depth look at the history of pirates. Focuses equally on fictional representations and history, and3.5 stars. An interesting but not particularly in-depth look at the history of pirates. Focuses equally on fictional representations and history, and each chapter looks at a specific topic - battle, treasure, life on board ship, female pirates etc etc.
On the whole, it was enjoyable but it was first published in the mid-90s and then republished as is following the release of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As a result, despite chapters dedicated to discussing the representation of pirates on the big screen, there's no mention of Pirates of the Caribbean. Or, for that matter, The Princess Bride. Which seems like an oversight...
It's clearly well researched across both historical documents and historical representations of pirates. But a lot of the time, it feels very...academic...and like it was just grazing the surface. Still, it was interesting and I enjoyed the mix of history and fiction. ...more
An interesting but fairly simple overview of Shakespeare's life. It's only 200 pages long, so there's not really a lot of room for detail. Each chapteAn interesting but fairly simple overview of Shakespeare's life. It's only 200 pages long, so there's not really a lot of room for detail. Each chapter focuses on a period of Shakespeare's life, with the final few chapters detailing his death and what's happened since, particularly the idea that SOMEONE else must have written his plays. Bryson discusses how many of these ignore primary source documents and instead focus on the evidence that isn't there to prove their case.
Essentially, it's entertaining but not anything ground breaking. ...more
I feel like the subtitle of this book is a little deceptive: "the untold story of the greatest hoax of the twentieth century"? Yeah, it's not a hoax sI feel like the subtitle of this book is a little deceptive: "the untold story of the greatest hoax of the twentieth century"? Yeah, it's not a hoax so much as "no one really knows what happened and maybe one dude did and was too scared to say anything so he just swept it all under the rug and sat on his hands until he died because he didn't want to end up in the hands of the KGB or the Stasi". But, you know, whatever.
ANYWAY. This is a wonderfully researched and easy to read discussion of the Amber Room and what happened to it during the Second World War. It took me a while to get used to the writing simply because it's written in the first person plural - we checked into our hotel room, we were surprised to learn that..., we went to see our friend the professor - and the book doesn't really offer any definitive conclusions. But it's still a fascinating look at the utter madness that went on between Soviet Russia and Nazi/East Germany through until the fall of the Iron Curtain....more
This book is incredibly readable and pretty damned fascinating. Harvey's an investigative journalist, and it shows in his writing. He knows how to weaThis book is incredibly readable and pretty damned fascinating. Harvey's an investigative journalist, and it shows in his writing. He knows how to weave a story that intrigues the reader and that provides equal amounts of historical information and the actual case of Gilbert Bland (the number of times I read his name as "Gilbert Blythe" was ridiculous) who, with the help of a razor blade, stole hundreds of maps from rare books rooms across the US and Canada in the mid-90s.
It's the story of cartography as much as it is the story of Bland, and it also features a lot about the aftermath of Bland's crime spree, with the FBI struggling to find the libraries from which the maps were taken. As a librarian, it makes for "OH MY GOD NO WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY" reading at times, but it was well and truly worth it. ...more
A very readable history of the Great Fire of London, and how it changed the face of the city forever. At times, it feels like pure fiction, because HaA very readable history of the Great Fire of London, and how it changed the face of the city forever. At times, it feels like pure fiction, because Hanson has effectively created a narrative for various significant figures throughout the events of the fire. But it's clear that he's done extensive amounts of research, so it never feels like it's just fabrication to fill in the gaps in the story.
It's not always an easy read. There's discussions of how the death toll is probably vastly underestimated, and of how people died during the fire. There's discussion of the punishment that was handed out to a mentally ill foreigner who was blamed for the fire. There's discussion of how many people died the following winter due to a lack of housing and food. There were times when it felt a little longer than was necessary, but on the whole it was an interesting read.
Although frankly? I think my favourite fact from this book is that Samuel Pepys buried his Parmesan cheese in the garden before fleeing from the fire. Priorities, yo. Pepys clearly had them. ...more
A brief but easy to read discussion of the discovery of Richard III's skeleton in Leicester. Pitts covers all sides of the story, from those who foughA brief but easy to read discussion of the discovery of Richard III's skeleton in Leicester. Pitts covers all sides of the story, from those who fought to have the excavation happen to the archaeologists who thought their clients were a bit nuts and who were wholly unconvinced that they'd never find him to the scientists who performed the DNA tests that established the skeleton's identity.
It's definitely interesting, although large parts of it are anecdotal and based on discussions with the various key players rather than on actual scientific evidence. This is probably perfectly fine for most readers, but (and this is going to make me sound like a pretentious arsehole) I have an archaeology degree so there were numerous moments that made me go "EVIDENCE PLEASE". Probably if I'd read it in conjunction with the articles published in peer reviewed journals to date, it would have been a much more fascinating reading experience. But that's probably just me.
In short, enjoyable but a little light on at times....more
This book is fabulous. It covers Tasmanian history from the arrival of sealers and whalers on the Bass Strait islands and the settlement of the DerwenThis book is fabulous. It covers Tasmanian history from the arrival of sealers and whalers on the Bass Strait islands and the settlement of the Derwent Valley in 1803 to the colony's name changing from Van Diemen's Land to Tasmania in 1856. It's a history that's been told many times before, but Boyce's history is different. It's primarily environmental, discussing how the landscape and the abundant wildlife of Van Diemen's Land shaped the colony and ensured not only its survival but the health of its inhabitants. At all points of the story, Boyce discusses the impact that settlement had on the Indigenous population, from early and often fraught encounters to regular and friendly contact with convict shepherds to the massacres of the 1820s and the eventual banishment and decimation of the population at Wybalenna.
There's little of the traditional history here, the history of governors and the colonial elite. This, instead, is the story of Van Diemen's Land's common people. The initial convicts, the women, the Aboriginal population. It's incredibly readable, even when it's utterly heartbreaking. The appendix on the colony's government policies towards Aboriginal people from 1827-1838 feels slightly out of place - it almost feels like Boyce started writing a separate book on Indigenous history, and then it somehow ended up published in this instead - but it's still an excellent and important inclusion to the story.
Essentially, this is the story that doesn't get taught in schools but which really should be. ...more
Okay, so there should probably be a mention SOMEWHERE in the title that this is, in fact, volume 1 and not the complete history of Australia. It coverOkay, so there should probably be a mention SOMEWHERE in the title that this is, in fact, volume 1 and not the complete history of Australia. It covers Australia's history from the megafauna era through European discovery and the arrival of the First Fleet, and then becomes the history of early colonial New South Wales through to the end of the Lachlan Macquarie era (so 1822).
Still, it's a book that incredibly readable, filled with entertaining titbits and anecdotes, and all with a fantastically sarcastic and funny writing style. There were moments throughout that were clearly poking modern Australia with a stick (references, for example, to the Eora considering the First Fleet to be boat people who should integrate into society), as well as a few brilliantly inserted Keating and Latham-isms ("a conga-line of suckholes" will forever be my personal favourite).
It's a book that doesn't require any prior knowledge of Australian history, though there are definitely some in-jokes for those of us who've been here a while. Well and truly worth the read, and should probably be handed out in high schools to keep kids interested in a subject that tends to be presented in a very dry and uninteresting way. ...more
Look, I'm completely biased here because I'm a contributing author. But this book is absolutely GORGEOUS. It's worth reading just for the pictures aloLook, I'm completely biased here because I'm a contributing author. But this book is absolutely GORGEOUS. It's worth reading just for the pictures alone. Museum photographers: worth their weight in gold, y'all.
In all seriousness though, if you're at all interested in Australian history, this book will give you a different perspective to the standard. There are twelve chapters, covering Australian history from 1788 to the present, and focusing on a range of themes. Each theme tells the story of between 2 and 4 places, using specific objects to illustrate the past and bring history to life.
It's full of beautiful images and amazing stories. Do yourself a favour and read it. ...more
An enjoyable enough telling of history, but I found the alternating chapters between British and French explorers to be a little frustrating. I wouldAn enjoyable enough telling of history, but I found the alternating chapters between British and French explorers to be a little frustrating. I would have preferred a combined and strictly chronological approach, rather than jumping between the two stories. Furthermore, despite being billed as the story of the race between the French and the English, a decent chunk of the early chapters covered European discovery of Australia, from the Dutch on the West Coast to Cook in 1770.
It was an easy read, and it was enjoyable enough. I just felt that the information could have been presented in a more cohesive fashion... ...more
Well, I'm finally finished. THANK GOD. Look, it's a fascinating subject matter, if you're into colonial history. And I felt like I SHOULD read it, aftWell, I'm finally finished. THANK GOD. Look, it's a fascinating subject matter, if you're into colonial history. And I felt like I SHOULD read it, after spending two years of my life developing a museum display about convict life in Tasmania (among other things). I think in part, it took me such a long time to read it because there really is a limit to how much of your day you can devote to reading about secondary punishment and how convicts walked around with their shoes full of blood from the floggings they were given. *shudder*
I think also it has to do with when it was written (1986) - clearly it was part of the whole "Oh crap, it's the Bicentennial soon, we'd better write a lot of stuff about Australia's history!" thing. Historical writing has changed a lot since the 1980s - it's now less stuffy and more conversational (in my opinion, at least!). So to go back to that really dry style was a bit of a struggle.
Basically, I enjoyed it, but I won't be reading it again any time soon....more
A fascinating if slightly wordy history of the use of spices from the ancient world to the eighteenth century. The book is broken up really3.5 stars.
A fascinating if slightly wordy history of the use of spices from the ancient world to the eighteenth century. The book is broken up really nicely - it starts out with a discussion of the European expeditions to the east Indies and the establishment of the Dutch East India Company.
The remainder of the book is divided into three sections: Palate, Body, and Spirit. The first focuses on the use of spices in food, from the Roman Empire through Medieval Europe. The second examines the use of spices as medicine, as perfume and as sex aids (got issues keeping it up? Rub some pepper on your dick and shove a lump of ginger up your arse!), primarily in Medieval times. There's also some discussion of the Middle East's use of spices in a Body sense at the same time. The final section examines the use of spices in religion over time, from covering the smell of rotting offerings in ancient times to the use of spices in the incense that's used in churches today.
The book wraps up with the fall of the spice trade when the hold of the Dutch East India Company was finally broken by some sneaky Frenchmen nicking a bunch of clove and nutmeg saplings and planting them in various French colonies, and how today Indonesia - once the source of the vast majority of the world's spices - is now an importer rather than an exporter.
If you're looking for a book that involves a strict chronology of the spice trade over the years, this isn't the book for you. It's about the USE of spices more than it's about the procuring of those spices. And it was pretty damned fascinating. ...more
I honestly wasn't expecting to, given that medical history books can often be incredibly dry, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. It's really well researchI honestly wasn't expecting to, given that medical history books can often be incredibly dry, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. It's really well researched and engagingly written book that details the history of malaria and its natural cure, quinine, through the ages and around the globe. It gives a good balance of the medical and historical sides without feeling too dense or too detailed for lay persons to understand. And I particularly appreciated how the story came full circle, with the importance of quinine plantations in Central Africa in the twenty first century.
My one main gripe would be that at times it seemed like there was too much emphasis on the author's personal family history. But it was effectively explaining her interest in malaria and its cure - she grew up in Africa, having to take anti-malarials on a regular basis, her grandfather suffered malaria repeatedly while in an internment camp during World War II, and her great-grandfather (I think...) was an engineer on the Panama Canal. So while the family oriented sections did feel like they were somewhat oddly placed in the big picture history of malaria, their inclusion was understandable. ...more
An incredibly detailed yet entertaining and often funny look at the history of Victorian London. Each chapter is, in effect, its own self-contained seAn incredibly detailed yet entertaining and often funny look at the history of Victorian London. Each chapter is, in effect, its own self-contained section of the story and focuses on one aspect of Victorian society. Topics range from food to clothing to religion, transport, death, the Great Exhibition, and the royal family. Picard has covered every element of society in detail while still managing to make it interesting.
Though each chapter is effectively self-contained - which does make the end of the book seem a little strange when there's no conclusion, and the book just...ends - there are recurring characters (so to speak) throughout. Picard has pulled extensive information from letters, diaries and official documents from the time, and so those writers crop up again and again with their comments on various events or elements of society.
On the whole, it was surprisingly enjoyable. ...more
If you're even remotely squeamish, you probably shouldn't read this book. It's about childbed fever, so there are women dying in agony left right andIf you're even remotely squeamish, you probably shouldn't read this book. It's about childbed fever, so there are women dying in agony left right and centre, and then their bodies are autopsied and found to be full of stinky pus. It's pretty graphic and pretty gross a lot of the time. And definitely don't read it if you're pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant in the near future.
But it's fascinating to see how something that seems so completely obvious - "Hey, maybe don't touch the insides of rotting corpses with your bare hands and then shove your unwashed fingers into some poor woman's birth canal repeatedly!" - took so long to be worked out, and how determined Semmelweis' colleagues were that he was wrong and washing your hands would do absolutely nothing. In some ways, it's not surprising that they resisted. I mean, accepting the theory meant accepting that you were personally responsible for the deaths of hundred and thousands of women. But at the same time, there was OVERWHELMING evidence in front of them and they still refused to believe it.
Semmelweis' life was a fairly tragic one, both personally and professionally. His attitude and his personal background meant that his colleagues and students were often rubbed the wrong way, making them determined not to accept his theories purely because they were Semmelweis' theories. Even historically, Semmelweis is largely overshadowed by Lister and Pasteur.
It's a pretty fascinating book, but it's occasionally a little clinical for those of us who don't have medical degrees. I would have liked a little more information about Semmelweis, but given that it seems such information is fairly thin on the ground, it's not surprising that Nuland didn't go into more detail. ...more
This book is both fascinating and kind of a shambles. It starts out telling the story of the 1894 plague outbreak in Hong Kong and the competition betThis book is both fascinating and kind of a shambles. It starts out telling the story of the 1894 plague outbreak in Hong Kong and the competition between a French doctor and a Japanese doctor to discover the bacteria that causes the plague. But then it starts talking about a 1994 plague outbreak in India before heading back to Hong Kong before deviating to discuss a plague outbreak in Madagascar during the second half of the twentieth century. Back to Hong Kong. Back to India. Back to Hong Kong. Over to San Francisco and the plague outbreak that followed the earthquake and fire of 1906. And then for some reason, there's a big discussion of the danger New York would face if plague ever broken out there?? Oh, and there's mention of Hiroshima and the fear that plague would break out in 1945 because somehow all the rats survived the nuclear explosion. And then we're back in India again.
Don't get me wrong, all the pieces of the story were really interesting. But good LORD did it jump around all over the place. And the lack of references made me a little dubious about some of the content. I mean, surely if you're quoting from journals and newspaper articles and letters, there should be references involved?! Right? Right. I'm still not sure if the individuals we're introduced to regarding the 1994 plague in India were actual people or characters that Marriott invented to portray the story.
That said, it serves as a chilling reminder that plague - with increasingly drug resistant strains - is still a threat today. So...yeah....more
This is really two short books rolled into one. The majority of the story being told is that of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It's a fascinating tThis is really two short books rolled into one. The majority of the story being told is that of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It's a fascinating tale, filled with interesting characters, marvels of nineteenth century engineering, and overcoming multiple setbacks to ultimately create something truly wonderful. The other side of the coin is the story of H.H. Holmes, one of America's first serial killers, who lived in Chicago and murdered guests staying at his hotel during the fair.
The two stories are only tangentially related. Holmes had nothing to do with the fair - other than attending as a visitor - and the fair had little to do with Holmes' motivations as a serial killer. Yes, it provided a steady stream of visitors to his hotel who knew nothing of the big city and its ways. But the fair didn't cause him to become a murderer, and nor did he stop killing after the fair had ended.
Still, it's a well-written and easy to read story. Larson has clearly done an enormous amount of research, and manages to convey facts in a conversational and often informal tone that makes this a compelling and fascinating story. ...more