BooksOfTheMoon

A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided

By Amanda Foreman

Rating: 4 stars

It usually takes me ages to read non-fiction books, but I raced through this one, and given that it’s over 800 pages, that’s not to be sniffed at. It’s very well-written, and keeps you turning the page, with a well-structured narrative, and lots of interesting characters. Despite its prevalence in popular culture, the American civil war is not one that I know very much about. This book has its particular angle, regarding the British links and reasons for British neutrality, but it also does a good job in covering the major reasons for and battles of the war.

I did find myself struggling a bit towards the end, as the number of people increased. Keeping track of who was who and which side they were fighting on was much harder by then, but made easier thanks to a very comprehensive index.

The book covered the political and diplomatic aspects of the British involvement with the civil war quite well, with Lords Lyons (the British “Minister” to the American Legation [not embassy]), Russell (the foreign secretary) and Palmerston (the prime minister) on the British side and William Seward (the American Secretary of State) and Charles Francis Adams (Lyons’ counterpart in London) on the American. It also covers individual stories well, following Britons who joined both sides of the war through their letters and other historical documents.

What I think it does less well is talk about the reasons that the average Briton joined or supported the different factions of the war. I was surprised by just how popular that the Southern cause was in Britain (Liverpool, in particular seems to have been a hotbed of sympathy for the South), given the general disgust with slavery, and I would have liked to have seen more on that.

Something else that I never really appreciated with the depth of enmity of America (both sides) to Britain in this period. It seems Seward in particular was happy to whip up the public against foreigners (particularly Britain) to bolster his political standing (plus ├ža change, eh?). This leads me to view the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the US with more than usual cynicism.

This is a very readable, in-depth history of the American civil war, from the very particular perspective of the British links, but it’s a page-turner, and with nearly 200 pages of endnotes if you want to go into more depth. A good overview of the war.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141040585
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2011

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps

By Edward Brooke-Hitching

Rating: 3 stars

This is a quite interesting book of maps of places that don’t exist. Whether by mistake, through hearsay or just plain lying, people were persuaded that these places were real enough to draw maps of, and Brooke-Hitching has collected a number of these, which he presents, along with their stories.

The book itself is lovely, with large, colour reproductions of the maps, often with boxouts of details (if the mistake is a tiny island on a map showing the whole Atlantic ocean, for example). I do feel that some of the entries could do with being longer, and I did get a bit tired of islands in the Atlantic that were probably just cloud banks. The book itself says that mythical islands are as abundant in the mythologies of Eastern cultures as that of the west, but it only devotes a single entry (Wak-Wak) to any of them. I would have happily lost a few of the Atlantic islands in favour of some stuff that wasn’t centred around the West.

There was a lot of interest, though. The story of Gregor MacGregor and his shameless invention of a territory in Latin America is fascinating, not to mention heartbreaking for the people he hoodwinked. And the idea that people for a long time thought that California was an island isn’t something that I had encountered before. Nor the belief that Australia had a huge inland sea, fed by a huge river network.

So a lovely book to dip into at random, but could have done with being a bit more balanced and less Euro- and American-centric.

Book details

ISBN: 9781471159459
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year of publication: 2016

The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

Rating: 4 stars

This book charts the arrival and spread of the black death of the 14th century in Europe, and particularly England. This isn’t a subject I really knew anything about, so I was coming in with a pretty blank slate. The book doesn’t really cover the plague’s origins in Asia other than to note that it probably arrived in Europe along trade routes into Italy, and spread throughout the continent from there.

It’s a good overview book, pulling together academic research from multiple different sources, and synthesising an overview, pitched at the interested layman, rather than the academic world.

Possibly the most interesting notion that came out of the book for me was the psychological state of the population into which the plague spread. The idea that medieval man was conditioned to just accept what was happening as a punishment from God, and so didn’t make any serious efforts to learning what caused it and steps to mitigate it. This is fascinating, and alien. Another reminder that the past really is another country.

Beyond that, I learned something about the Flagellants (who I’d never heard of) and the persecution of the Jews (not that Christian Europe needed any additional excuse for that) as well as the state of medicine during the period.

The least interesting part, for me, was the region by region description of how the plague spread across England (and, as I said, it is mostly England, with Wales, Ireland and Scotland getting one chapter between them – and even that is shared with the Welsh border counties in England). As Ziegler himself says, the pattern was fairly similar across the country, as it spread from county to county and region to region.

More interesting was the analysis towards the end, regarding the long-term consequences of the plague and the arguments for and against it being the catalyst for long-term political and economic changes across Europe.

I’ve come away feeling more informed about the period, which is the best case after reading a history book aimed at a general audience. Recommended as an historical overview of a grisly period.

Book details

ISBN: 9780750932028
Publisher: Sutton
Year of publication: 1969

The History of England in the Eighteenth Century

By Thomas Babington Macaulay

Rating: 3 stars

This volume stitches together the essays of Thomas Macaulay to form a moderately cohesive narrative history of 18th (and first 30 years of 19th) century Britain. The introduction tells us that the editor pulled this together using essays, often for the Edinburgh Review spread across many years, so the editing and bridging is also quite impressive.

The history itself is quite odd. It does refer to interacting nations and chains of events, but often it focuses closely on the British Parliament, and follows the political knockabout of the great (and not so great) figures of the day. We cover administrations including Walpole, the Pelhams, both Pitts, Chatham and many more, often in enough detail to reassure me that modern politics aren’t so different to those of our forefathers. There was the same pettiness, infighting and occasional sparks of grace that we see today.

The history is focused very much on the Palace of Westminster, although the section talking about the attempts, and repeated failures, to deal with Ireland post-Union was very interesting to me. Although the book covers momentous periods – including the American war of independence and the Napoleonic Wars – it doesn’t cover them in any great depth.

Much of the book is told in a slightly detached tone, although you always get the impression that he’s more sympathetic to Whigs than Tories, but the tone gets warmer and more impassioned in the final chapter as he relates the first Reform Bill and its passage. At times I could just imagine strains of Land of Hope and Glory in the background and almost stood up and saluted!

So an interesting book which provides a very good Parliamentary history of Britain (tsk, people in the period and their conflating of England and Britain). Not really useful as a general history of the country, but in its place it’s both useful and informative. I’m very much struck by the last sentence though, which is wise and as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th:

Those who compare the age on which their lot as fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.

Book details

Publisher: The Folio Society
Year of publication: 1980

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There

By Sinclair McKay

Rating: 4 stars

This book acts as a social history of the activities of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during the second world war. It becomes clear fairly early on that Mckay doesn’t have any technical knowledge and doesn’t even try to get across any of the technical aspects of ciphers and codebreaking, but that’s not the point of this book. If you want the technical details, then a book like Colossus: Bletchley Park’s Greatest Secret is probably a better choice. However, this book does look at the people at Bletchley and the lives they led during their time there. In this regard, it succeeds, with interviews from survivors and extracts from various documents in different archives.

Various aspects are discussed, from recruitment to Bletchley, and how that changed over the course of the war, to the way the work was apportioned and segregated between the various huts, to the famous social side of the Park. It’s well-written and makes for a very interesting and enjoyable read. McKay has done his research with his interviewees who all sound like a fascinating bunch, but with narrow knowledge (due to the secrecy at the site). McKay is able to draw the various accounts into a more rounded and wider account.

So quite a broad, rather than detailed, account of the work of Bletchley, but definitely fascinating without any jargon to worry the non-technical.

Book details

ISBN: 9781845136338
Publisher: Aurum Press
Year of publication: 2010

Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who (1990-2013)

By Paul Kirkley

Rating: 3 stars

The second volume of Space Helmet for a Cow takes up the story from where the first volume leaves off: Doctor Who has been cancelled and that looks like that. Talking us through the Wilderness Years, to its triumphant return and beyond, Kirkley retains the informal, chatty style from the first book that makes this as easy to read as that volume.

There is, however, a major issue with this volume, which Kirkley acknowledges in the introduction, is that this is all still comparatively recently. Doctor Who returned in 2005, that’s just twelve years ago, at the time of this review. There hasn’t been time for things to come out in the wash yet, so we still don’t have the full story behind Christopher Eccleston’s short time in the Tardis, or why Freema Agyeman left after just one year. And that just gets worse, the closer to the present day that we get. By the time we’re up to Eleven’s last series (and the afterword, that discusses Twelve’s first couple of seasons), it’s become just a glorified episode guide, with a ratings count. That’s not to take anything away from the work that Kirkley has put in, but I’d be much more interested in the second edition of Space Helmet Vol 2, that emerges in another couple of decades.

There’s still some good stories behind the scenes, and some running gags at the expense of former BBC director general Michael Grade (and Adric. I would say poor Adric, but, well, it’s Adric). But it’s not as essential a volume as its predecessor. And it could still do with an index.

Book details

ISBN: 9781935234210
Publisher: Mad Norwegian Press

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 3 stars

The idea of this book intrigued me – a history of private life. I was expecting a social history, of how families and homes have changed throughout history. This wasn’t that book. Instead Bryson uses the rooms in his home as a jumping off point for random dips into (almost exclusively British and American) history. As another review put, it’s mostly just a collection of entertaining random facts. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I do feel that there’s a missed opportunity here to write the book that I had hoped this would be.

So Bryson takes us through the kitchen and scullery (a chance to talk about servants and their relationships with their employers), the drawing room and dining room (talking about how dining and food have changed and comfort respectively), the passage (goodness knows), the bedroom and bathroom (a lot of pain here, as medicine, surgery and hygiene are discussed; disappointingly little sex) all the way up to the attic, which is an excuse to talk about Charles Darwin and in which Bryson tries to make us feel sorry for rich landowners because they get taxed. Diddums.

Bryson spends a lot of time with architects and big houses (unsurprisingly for someone who used to be president of the Campaign for the Protection for Rural England) and I did learn about the Gilded Age, a period in American history that I previously wasn’t aware was A Thing. But mostly, the collection of names, dates and facts went in one ear, briefly amused me and went out the other. I doubt I’ll retain very much knowledge from this book.

So, in my opinion, this book was a missed opportunity. It was entertaining enough, but not the book it could have been. On the other hand, that book is still to be written, and I’m ready to read it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781784161873
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2010

Eureka!: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Ancient Greeks But Were Afraid to Ask

By Peter Jones

Rating: 3 stars

I found this a slightly odd book. It’s very “bitty”. It covers a lot of breadth, but with sections a short as a third of page, there’s very little in the way of depth. I often found myself wanting more information about a person, a topic or a war. On the other hand, the very breadth is very useful for someone like me who has very little knowledge of ancient Greece. If nothing else, the book got across the very fractured nature of Greece in this period very well. The way the city-states would constantly bicker with each other, and their shifting pattern of alliances as they sought to prevent one or the other gaining dominance.

For covering a large period of history, you’ve got to paint in broad brush strokes but it does feel like the dots could have been better connected here to make a more cohesive narrative. Still, there’s a lot of worth here, and the narrative voice is rather wry and occasionally throws in sarcastic asides for the reader.

Book details

ISBN: 9781782395164
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Year of publication: 2014

Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years

By Jared Diamond

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot in this book to wrap your head around. The basic premise tries to look at human history since the last ice age to determine the ultimate causes of why the shape of human history evolved as it did: why has Eurasia, and Europe in particular, dominated recorded history and spread and conquered so much of the world.

The answers that Diamond comes up with are interesting and thought-provoking, looking at geography and biogeography over “race”. His four basic conclusions involve the availability of suitable plants and animals for domestication; the orientation of the major axis of the continents and how this affects diffusion of both things (plants, animals, people) and ideas between and across continents.

Obviously, a book of about 450 pages can’t cover a subject this big in great depth, but the thesis seems compelling to a layman like myself, with its explanation of why Europeans were the ones to develop the guns and steel and bring germs to the lands they conquered. The book while being moderately academic in tone is still very readable and has lots of real-world examples. (However, it’s still one that I had to read moderately slowly, breaking it up with lighter reading material.) The major caveat that I have to admit is that I am a layman and although Diamond’s hypothesis makes sense to me, I have no idea what other ideas are in out there in the field, and how seriously this one is taken compared to others.

The book is coming up to the 20th anniversary of its publication and it would be interesting to see an updated edition to see how our understanding has changed in that time, thanks to developments in archaeology, genetics and anthropology over the last couple of decades.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 1997

Space Helmet for a Cow: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who (1963-1989)

By Paul Kirkley

Rating: 4 stars

This is an engaging book, informally written, with lots of snarky asides to the reader and imagined conversations between the figures that form this history. I’m a confirmed fan of many years standing, but there was still a fair bit in here that I didn’t know. Kirkley admits in the acknowledgements at the end that he relied heavily on secondary works, but for a book like this that’s perfectly reasonable. And he provides his references in a comprehensive source section at the back.

Although I didn’t really get into the fandom properly until later, I’ve always tended to go along with the general notion that John Nathan-Turner wasn’t good for the programme, but Kirkley is sympathetic to him and I find myself coming away with a much more nuanced view of the chap. The higher echelons of the BBC in the 80s, though, come in for a drubbing.

One thing that the book sorely needs is an index. There are so many names that it’s difficult to keep track of them all, so an index to let you flip back and check up on them would be invaluable. Without it, it makes it hard to use as a reference. In saying that, the book is clearly intended as a narrative history, not a scholarly one, so the omission is understandable.

So overall, this is an entertaining history of the fascinating story of a remarkable television programme. One that somehow managed to survive its first couple of disaster-laden episodes and is still going strong, more than fifty years later.

Book details

ISBN: 9781935234173
Publisher: Mad Norwegian Press
Year of publication: 2014

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