Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

20 January 2016

How to be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life

I’m a sucker for day-in-the-life books that set down the minutiae of everyday life in times – the more detailed the better. (My teenage discovery and subsequent serial re-readings of What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is very much to blame for this).

No surprise then, that I snatched up a copy of Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life as soon as I clapped eyes on it. And it was delightful. For me, it is the perfect bedtime read – right up there with Flora Thompson's trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford -- in that while it is full of fascinating, delicious detail begging to be shared it is nicely broken up so that I can easily put it down and take it back up again without feeling I need to reread previous pages. (Although I do reread, because reading about morning calisthenics is just as good as doing them, right?).

I regret that the continuous desire to share excerpts of How to be a Victorian with The Husband as he lay in bed with me trying to read his book put a strain on our marriage ... but that did not deter me. And he eventually learned to put down his book (with poor grace) and be regaled with the history of public baths and wash houses or the development of marble-stoppered carbonated drinks (Victorian marble soda! Fabulous!).

How to be a Victorian is a delicious blend of research, analysis, and actual experience. Goodman is a British freelance historian who performed/prevented in several historical docudramas (which I now need watch) and as such has tried many of the activities and behaviors she writes about -- giving an already fascinating book an added layer of interest. It’s one thing to read that hair oil could be made of fats like lard or beef-marrow and perfumed, it’s another thing altogether to read that the author had herself created a perfectly functional product using a simple recipe calling for olive oil, alkanet root, and bergamot oil. (Yes, I was half-tempted to go out and try this).

For all that How to be a Victorian is fun and fascinating it does not romanticize the era. Almost everyone was cold and hungry and poor. People believed seemingly improbable things about hygiene and disease. But it’s how the world was and it’s good to know, if only so we can feel smug about the germ theory of disease and modern plumbing. Most likely people living in the twenty-third century, reading about daily life in the United States in the twenty-first, will feel equally smug.

Go, read Goodman's How to be a Victorian. And then come back and talk with me about it!

How to be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman (Norton, 2014)

20 July 2014

Shackleton: Antarctic Journey

Shackleton: Antarctic Journey was an excellent, albeit slim, introduction to Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 trans-Antarctica expedition. Rather than telling the story step-by-step over hundreds of pages, Bertozzi has chosen to tell the story through a series of short scenes which stress not the patriotic majesty of the expedition but rather the smaller, more intimate personal stories -- forced to abandon ship, they discard their scientific equipment (too heavy to carry), but keep a banjo; one of the crew members goes bicycling among the penguins; they kvetch about rations, etc -- that create a sympathy for and interest in the crew, that a broader story might not.

What I still find fascinating was that, despite the hardships and travails, no-one from the Endurance was lost on the expedition! Yes, the expedition utterly failed to attain its goal of traversing Antarctica, but everyone came back alive. That is no small thing. And, it was quite depressing, upon reading the afterward, to then discover that several of the men returned home only to be killed in World War I. (Also, I now require a companion graphic for the relief ship, the Aurora, because Shackleton barely touches on them but the Afterward suggests they had a wretched time of it, too).

If you're looking for a meaty work full of biography and background, Shackleton isn't it. And that's fine, because there are already lots of Big Books on Shackleton to choose from. It's an excellent introduction and will, no doubt, lead many curious readers on to larger works. Certainly, if I'd read this when I was twelve, I would probably have cleaned my school library out of books on Shackleton and Antarctic explorations.

Shackleton: Antarctic Journey written & illus. by Nick Bertozzi (First Second, 2014)

27 February 2011

Great Speeches on Gay Rights

Perhaps the Right is right about something. We stand for the end of the world as we know it. We call for the end of racism and sexism and bigotry as we know it. We call for the end of violence and discrimination and homophobia as we know it. We call for the end of sexism as we know it.

We stand for freedom as we have yet to know it. And we will not be denied.

-- excerpted from Urvashi Vaid's "Speech at the March on Washington," Washington DC, April, 25, 1993, as published in Great Speeches on Gay Rights (Dover, 2010)
Great Speeches on Gay Rights might not provide as thorough an overview of lgbtq rhetoric as, say, Ridinger's Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights, 1892-2000 (Routledge, 2004), but is much more affordable and more easily acquired. Seriously, for a mere $3.50, you too can cry your way through over a century of lgbtq struggles and victories.

(What I'm really waiting for is the day Library of America publishes Reporting Gay Rights or Gay Speeches. I expect it to happen in my lifetime, but then I expect a lot of things to happen in my lifetime, cock-eyed optimist that I am).

27 January 2011

Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Jennifer Kloester

I read a lot of Heyer's romances and regularly come across phrases or descriptions I must puzzle out either by sifting through websites or searching the reference section of my library. It's not a big deal -- I'm have a great love of useless trivia -- but I've frequently wished for a little guide I could quickly thumb through to find my answer. And, lo, my wish has been granted!

Georgette Heyer's Regency World is divided into fourteen chapters with many black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout. Chapters cover everything from the social ladder to postage to vowels and all points between. The appendix of cant and common phrases is very welcome as is the timeline of contemporary events -- as with Austen, I find it easy to forget that these stories do not occur in a bubble.

The index is very well laid and is arranged both by subject and, interestingly, by novel. Theoretically, you could read all the notes on The Black Sheep in one go before you even started the book! (I'm not sure why you would want to do this, but you could).

The book itself is a fairly attractive trade paperback designed, I presume, by Sourcebooks to blend with the Heyer Regencies it has already republished. It is, perhaps, a bit too pink for my taste, but I have never been very fond of pink.

And while, yes, much of the information contained in this volume can be found on the Internet or in your library, it is much more pleasant to have it all neatly arranged in one location!

Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Jennifer Kloester (Sourcebooks, 2010)

06 August 2010

Tea in the Morning, Tea in the Evening

Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson (Jones Books, 2004)

I spent a good hour reading interesting bits from Tea with Jane Austen aloud to The Husband -- and there were many interesting bits! For example, did you know there was a tidy black market in tea in Austen's day? And that this "tea" was frequently made from used tea leaves stretched with bits of twigs and sawdust? Or it was brewed from ash tree leaves mixed with sheep's dung and green vitriol (a toxin)?

It certainly paid to be a discerning shopper!

Besides the booming trade in illegal tea, Wilson also covers such diverse topics as tea as a curative/poison (the breakfast ale drinkers were pretty opposed to tea going mainstream) and tea as social entertainment. As someone interested in historical trivia, I was fascinated by Tea with Jane Austen and wished it could have been a bigger book!

Of course, Wilson could not write a book about tea without including recipes for lovely tea time goodies. In many cases, she has provided the original recipes text with a modern translation. Some recipes, as in the case of "For Captains of Ships to Make Catchup to Keep Twenty Years," do not have a modern translation, because ... well, who would want to make Catchup of Infinite Keeping?

Recipes I would like to try:
  • Barley Water for Henry Austen & King George
  • China Orange Jelly for Mrs. Norris's Maid
  • Solid Syllabubs
  • A Syllabub (Indirectly) from the Cow
(The original recipe for "To Make a Syllabub from the Cow" sounds fascinating, but requires an actual cow!)

14 May 2010

Give Me That Olde Tyme Hooliganism

Just finished chortling my way through Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals. As usual, there were quite a lot of inside jokes and asides which tickled me pink. While I'd like to think I spotted them all, I am not really that clever. Proof in point -- I did not recognise Emerson's "Brahma" lurking in Pedestria's chant.

Googling around for a copy of "Brahma," I became a little side-tracked and found a whole slew of interesting NYT articles from the late 1880s and early 1900s discussing hooliganism and the evolution of football. One article, from 1909, even talked about how the old way of playing football with its "sledge-hammering tactics" no longer worked and described a "new" football which sounded a lot like something Mr. Nutt would recognise.

The hooliganism article ("Foot-Ball Fighting" November 21, 1881) was probably my favorite as it describes a match not unlike the one Mr. Nutt attended in his bobble hat. Also, the article reads like something I would expect to read in the Ankh-Morpork Times.

It goes on to talk about how Something Must Be Done. Lawks, yes! "Let them fight with rifles, like civilized beings." Really, that is what it says!

12 September 2009

Vay-kay Picsies

collage of Washington DC photosWhile we enjoyed many of the D.C. museums we visited, I must give a shout out to the National Postal Museum and United States Government National Archives and Records Administration -- two institutions which deserve much better coverage in travel guides.

The Postal Museum's exhibit "Alphabetilately" was highly enjoyable and covered many fascinating topics like v-mail and railway post.

As for NARA ... I know everyone goes there to see the Big Three (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) but many of the exhibits were far more compelling -- Charles P. Ingalls's application for a grant of 154 acres in the Dakota Territory under the 1863 Homestead Act was on display, for pete's sake!

(And let's not forget bit about Virginia Hall of the OSS who, despite an amputated leg, organized numerous sabotage operations against German forces in France).

16 May 2008

"The Americans Misunderstood Us"

Imperial Life in the Emerald City written by Rajiv Chandrasekaran & read by Ray Porter (Blackstone Audiobooks, 2006)

My “I” title for the A~Z reading challenge was Imperial Life in the Emerald City, because a good citizen can never know too much about government shenanigans at home or abroad.

In this surreal and disturbing (and yet also surprisingly funny) audio book, reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran recounted his experiences in Iraq during the American occupation. By and large, the Coalition Provisional Authority came off as alarmingly clueless, isolatory, and way too gung-ho -- thinking up grand projects like turning Iraq’s stock exchange into the most technologically sophisticated one in the Middle East -- at a time when Iraq’s basic infrastructure desperately needed shoring up and its people felt less safe than before we arrived.

This is not to say Chandrasekaran found nothing but fault with the CPA -– he did write about CPA members who were genuinely interested in working with the Iraqis to create reform or had real practical plans to improve infrastructure. Unfortunately, they were all thwarted by American politics, corruption, and gross ineptitude.
'If this place succeeds,' a CPA friend told me before he left, 'it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it'."
It's very hard for me to write about my reaction to this audio book. Much of it made me burn with shame -- even while I was chuckling, I was wincing.

Chandrasekaran has a great list of further reading on his site which is definitely worth checking out. Hmmm ... Operation Iraqi Freedom Reading Challenge, anyone?

No. There's not enough alprazolam in the world.

27 December 2007

A Fillpot of Negus and Thou

I have been trying (rather desperately) to get myself in a more seasonal mindset by listening to Christmas-y audiobooks. I dabbled a little with folksy Lake Wobegon Christmases (A Prairie Home Christmas and Now It Is Christmas Again) then moved South (Blue Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews) before jumping across the pond (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens).

Whenever I read (or listen to) a historical novel I find myself always puzzling over trivia. While A Christmas Carol is a ripping tale and Jim Dale is a pleasure to listen to, I found myself increasingly distracted by pesky little question like "What kind of game is snap dragon?" or "What’s a smoking bishop made of?" and "What the heck is negus when it's at home?"

Smoking bishop, in particular, caught my fancy -- I imagined a group of fat old barristers (their buttoned waistcoats straining over their bellies) with hands full of smoking pipes and Toby jugs of some hot steaming toddy while they gossiped around a pub fire. The jugs, of course, would be shaped like fat little bishops. It was a pleasant image, if completely unlikely.

Thanks to the Guardian's "Booze by Boz" post, I now have a nice little recipe for smoking bishop and also know that it's pretty much mulled wine. Not particularly exciting, but there it is. There's also a decent sounding recipe for it over at Recipezaar which omits the grapefruit juice and suggestions posh additions such as cinnamon sticks and star anise.


Now, snapdragon? Gerard and Patricia Del Re’s The Christmas Almanack (Doubleday: 1979) tells me this about snapdragon:

This was once a very popular game played at Christmas in England. Raisins were placed in a bowl and covered with brandy, which was set ablaze. The object was to snatch the raising out of the fire and pop them in your mouth before the flames did too much damage. There was probably very little flavor left in the burned and shriveled raisins, but the danger and daring made a great sauce, and snapdragon was popular for many years before dying out in our own practical century [19th].

Ah, to live back in the good old days when unburnt fingers were grand entertainment!

And negus? Mysterious negus consumed with cake and cold roast? Negus is, according to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (available online at or through Project Gutenburg), a hot mulled fortified wine like port or sherry. While this beverage sounds rather potent to an infrequent tippler like me, it was often served to Victorian children:

Mode. -- As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to 1/4 lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage.

Sufficient -- Allow 1 pint of wine, with the other ingredients in proportion, for a party of 9 or 10 children.


28 February 2007

Reads & Listens, February 2007


Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Bettie & John Geiger
Reading this confirmed how little real information the Nova special contained. Indeed, the Nova special was a teaser compared with this book and the others I have read about the (doomed) Franklin Expedition.

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Frankin's Lost Polar Expedition by Scott Cookman
The text can be a little overwrought for non-fiction, but still a frighteningly informative (if depressing) description of what happened to the (utterly doomed) Franklin Expedition. Grr. They were so cocksure, so Victorian, so English they went ahead and killed themselves on a mission that was (we can so easily see this now) doomed to utter failure from the start.

Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail by Stephen R. Brown
Ordinarily, I would not have picked up this book, but the Franklin expedition suffered from scurvy and I am nothing if not all things Franklin these days. Anyway, a fascinating and disheartening read.


Nightwatch by Sarah Waters (read by Juanita McMahon)
This book made me want to cry. Or throw up. Aside from Jane Eyre when I was twelve, I've never felt so completely ... ensnarled ... by a book. Kay, Viv, and Helen were more real to me than some people I know.

30 November 2003

Reads & Listens, November 2003


Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize ...

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
Winner of the 2003 Man Booker Prize. While yes, it held my interest and I did laugh a few times, this book doesn't seem good enough to be an award winner. The characters are all flat stereotypes and the plot is repetitive and just not that exciting. Also, there seems to be a drastic change in tone partway through the book -- as if portions had been written at different times and then pasted together?

The Unadulterated Cat by Terry Pratchett & illus. by Gray Jolliffe
Living with six very Real cats, I can tell ya it's all true. Jolliffe's cartoons are a hoot, too.

Nanny Ogg's Cookbook: A Useful and Improving Almanack of Information Including Astonishing Recipes from Terry Pratchett's Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Stephen Briggs, Tina Hannan, and Paul Kidby
If you're not a fan of the Discworld, you're not likely to appreciate this book. I happen to love anything that has the witches in it, so this book tickled me pink. Now I can make me own Dried Frog Pills (sans frogs), Strawberry Wobbler, and Sausage Inna Bun. Sweet.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Best read in chunks or your brain will explode.

Angels by Marian Keyes
Good Irish Girl separates from husband after marriage derails. Moves to Los Angeles to stay with her friend, an unsuccessful script writer. Goes on a bender. Sleeps with Unobtainable Object of Fascination. Has a Lesbian Experience. Obtains Closure on relationship with an Old Ex. Reconciles with hubby. Goes back to Ireland. Gets preggers. Happy Ever After. Amen.

A pretty good airport read.

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin
Pretty okay. Witty, comical, sly, blah blah blah. A good light read for the train from Preston to Euston.

30 October 2003

Reads & Listens, October 2003


Samurai Girl: The Book of the Sword by Carrie Asai
Fast, easy read. Constant pop culture references are annoying (but I'm not 14) and most of the characters are flat types. Would make a good anime or sitcom (like Buffy or Alias), but suffers as a plain old text.

Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
First, this is a beautifully designed book -- the cover art, the font styles, the size of the book -- it's all wonderful. It's a book that will survive multiple readings quite nicely and still look good on your shelf ten years from now. Secondly, the story (essentially a close retelling of the goose girl fairytale) is lyrical and utterly captivating. In many places it reads more like poetry than prose and would be great read aloud. I think if you like Robin McKinley's books, you'll like Goose Girl.

Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin (illus. by Eric Beddows)
Not a collection of short stories so much as a travelogue or set of fictionalized essays. Not as enjoyable as some of her other works, but a good airport read.

In Their Own Voices: Teenage Refugees and Immigrants from India Speak Out compiled by R. Viswanath
Part of Rosen Publishing Group's In Their Own Voices series. Tells the stories of seven Indian teens -- why they left India, what living in the US is like, their hopes and dreams, etc. Each teen's story might work better if paired with an essay discussing a major issue in the teen's story. For example, essays on culture shock, marriage customs, or political uprising in Kashmir would have done wonders. While this book also includes a very brief history of India it concentrates mostly on India under colonialism and makes colonialism seem pretty okay, really. On the other hand, Voices offers the reader a pretty unique POV not found in most other YA materials.

Neela: Victory Song (Girls of Many Lands Series) by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Overall, a good YA read. Pretty historically accurate look at one girl's life in 1939 India. Neela is strong and determined -- good role model material -- and the author's treatment of the Bengali culture seems authentic. My only real complaint is that the ending was too abrupt. What happened to Neela's mother while Neela was away rescuing Dad? How is Neela's disappearance and return handled by her village? What happens to her marriage prospects (considering her indecorous behavior -- climbing trees is one thing, but running off to Calcutta dressed as a boy is quite another)?

Asian Americans: Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam and Cambodia by Joann Faung Jean Lee
Personal histories of Asian Americans grouped into three major sections -- "Living In America," "Aspects of Americanization," and "Reflections on Interracial Marriage." By no means a warm fluffy look at "model minorities," but rather brutally honest look at an extremely diverse group of people.

Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World by Hazel Rochman
Brilliant book with essays on cultural issues and bibliographies of juvenile and YA resources on specific ethnic groups. An absolute must have.

Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking by Raghavan Iyer
The photos are beautiful and make everything look temptingly delicious. The simple (mostly vegetarian) recipes use ingredients readily available at local grocers and Iyer's comments are always helpful.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
As always, a clever little novel. Pratchett never disappoints.

Karma of the Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad
Inspired by du Bois's The Souls of the Black Folk, this is a well written and eye opening attack on the myth of the "model minority."

Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History by Lan Cao & Himilce Novas
Well, not precisely everything, but certainly more than you learned in school.